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MPhil in Engineering for Sustainable Development

global challenges, engineering solutions

Studying at Cambridge

Matthew Myers

Examining the stance taken by environmental NGOs towards nuclear power.
An evil relic or a benign gift? Nuclear power can be both – depending on who you ask. Given the threat we face from climate change, countries such as the UK are grappling with the challenge of reducing carbon emissions in a cost effect manner. Nuclear power is a technology that to some, such as the current UK government, promises reliable, low-carbon and cost-effective energy. However, to others, such as many UK environmental NGOs, it is seen as a dangerous and costly distraction. NGOs have had an increasing influence in policy formation and have the potential to provide independent information, widen debate and hold government accountable. However, NGOs sometimes face criticism regarding their accountability and epistemological flexibility. Traditionally, environmental groups such as Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and the WWF have been implacably opposed to nuclear power.
This research asks whether anything has changed, to what extent environmental NGOs are engaging with the current debate, their main arguments for or against nuclear power, and how sound these arguments are. Policy documents and semistructured interviews with policy leaders of relevant UK NGOs involved in the nuclear debate constitute the primary data source.
The results show mixed responses from both sides as traditionally anti-nuclear NGOs have slowly diverted their resources elsewhere. Most anti-nuclear groups seem to be incapable of coming to terms with the potential benefits of nuclear energy, whereas those pro-nuclear seem equally ignorant regarding its downfalls. By borrowing discourse from the ‘other side’, anti-nuclear NGOs have progressed their arguments from those surrounding environmental protection and safety to those focusing primarily on costs. The costs of nuclear are inflated by anti-nuclear groups, with these groups failing to realise that their levelised cost does not account for their intermittency and the ultimate cost of integrating them into the grid. On the other hand, pro-nuclear groups are ignorant to the benefits of renewables. The intermittency of renewables and radioactive waste produced by nuclear power remain issues for which there are no ideal, cost-effective solutions. As renewables penetration rates grow and the grid is forced to become more flexible, there is no reason that renewables and nuclear, each with their benefits, cannot operate harmoniously.