Here’s a quick thought bubble on a quiet Tuesday.

I have just been chatting with my friend Mike Shellenberger. Mike is formerly of The Breakthrough Institute and is currently spearheading an effort to prevent the closure of California’s last nuclear plant, Diablo Canyon.

Within a wide ranging conversation we talked about the way nuclear power is presented to the world. The word “nuclear” itself suffers major brand issues, and it is inconsistent with other sources that are commonly named by energy/fuel source (wood, oil, gas). It would be more consistent to speak of “uranium” as the key fuel, though some of the energy production comes from other elements.

I dislike the grouping “renewables” as it make a family out of a motley collection of technologies that have little in common (picture a home PV system, then a large hydro dam on a river, then a biomass plant burning wood pellets. Ridiculous grouping). Frankly, given the available resources of uranium, the efficiency of advanced nuclear cycles and the vast resource in (un)spent nuclear fuel avialable right now, the idea that “renewables” are in any way more sustainable that nuclear power seems fallacious to me.

I like the word “fission” because it tells me something about what is happening in the process and, critically, distinguishes it from “combustion”. Combustion is a climate change and air pollution problem. Fission is not, because fission has no chimney, because nothing is burning so fission doesn’t need one.

That all made Mike and I think about “Motion” (hydro, wind), “combustion” (wood, biomass, oil, gas, coal, biofuel), “fission” (uranium, thorium, other actinides) and “light” (solar PV and, less directly, solar thermal).

Motion, combustion, fission and light.

The words offer insight into the characteristics, advantages and disadvantages of each. Motion in the environment comes and goes; rivers run differently year to year, wind rises and dips day to day, hour to hour, minute to minute. Light varies too, but for different reasons and in different patterns. Lots of us have an accessible light resource at our homes, but we have no accessible motion resource. Combustion can be constant but whether it’s coal or gas or wood pellets, you are burning something; that means CO2 and air pollution is guaranteed. It’s easy to take a little constant combustion with you wherever you go in the form of fuel. One can’t say the same of light, motion or fission. Fission is constant, it’s not burning anything. That means no CO2 or air pollution but you need to take care of the fissioned bits. Combustion and fission are excellent when what you really need most is heat; light can work well and motion isn’t a great starting point to get heat.

Would we consider trying to power the world on motion and light alone? How would we need to alter the world, and our energy systems, to make that happen? Can we do it, and would we seriously wish to do it? How could we store enough light and motion to do without combustion and fission? If we can’t do without combustion, what are we going to combust to resolve our climate dilemma and air pollution danger? Can we make enough combustible fuel? Is that a job for motion, light, fission or all three?

It might be nothing, but maybe some smarter labels would help us ask some smarter questions.


  1. That nicely groups all those technologies into what work they do.

    After all Power is the rate of work over time (P=dW/dT), and that is measured as joules per second or Watt. What we always talk about is how many kWh ow MWh etc. a system can provide or requires and it makes sens to group them by the physical or atomic work they do.

    I’ve also looked at it in terms of fission and combustion are really altering the states of atoms in compounds (combustion) or alone (fission). From this I have always seen fission as an evolution of combustion of fuels where we went from breaking chemical bonds to breaking the atom itself to harness it’s nuclear forces. Next step is quantum forces and warp drive!

    Consider this terminology adopted by myself. I like it.

  2. Hi Ben,

    I too have been chatting with Michael today, which speaks volumes about his accessibility and boundless energy!

    I have also been supporting Californians for Green Nuclear Power’s (CGNP) efforts for years, to keep Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant operating. They are elated to have Michael and his nascent Save Diablo Canyon group working towards the same goal.

    I have spent over 4 decades in both the public and private sectors, doing everything possible in Community Development, and growing a small business selling Adopt a Baby Redwoods! All of which led me to now following my passions, and supporting the efforts of several brilliant young Ecomodernists and Physicists…

    Granted, the nuclear industry has failed miserably with messaging for decades, and proper labeling is important.

    However, process is also important, and the best way to push back against decades of anti-nuke messaging, is to compare relative risks of all energy producing technologies in common, familiar terms: (Oh, the stories I could tell about endless late night public hearings, with really angry neighbors fighting to prevent installation of the dreaded cellular phone tower in THEIR backyard).

    Here is an example of what my friends at CGNP and I have done to push the California Energy Commission (CEC) towards doing the same, in their current update of their State Energy Plan:

    Obviously, a small group from the Central Group does not have much leverage with the CEC, but the public record does now contain documentation, which groups like Save Diablo Canyon could use to finally begin a broad-based, informed public conversation, about the risks and benefits of all energy producing technologies.

      1. Thank you Ben, for the “thought bubble” and acknowledgement that branding is important in reframing our conversation about nuclear power.

        Smarter labels would help us ask smarter questions, and focus all our efforts to support nuclear power. While a sales effort may rankle many of our academic peers, it is exactly what’s needed at this time, for energy production to evolve.

        While the conversation Michael and I are having is rooted more in the vagaries and relevance of land use regulations and public disclosure, it intersects with your “thought bubble” in amplifying the need to target selling the public on nuclear power.

        Frankly, if we can’t Go Viral with our promise of clean, safe abundant energy production, all our conversations will amount to little more than delightful distractions from the harsh reality of billions living in poverty, and tens of millions dying each year from energy poverty and air pollution…

        All of which brings us back to sales!

        Tom Aageson at Creative Start Ups is doing some interesting work in “accelerating entrepreneurs and building the creative economy,” which is relevant and insightful:

        However, the huge number in the exponent of Einstein’s elegant equation should be all we need to develop an irresistible sales pitch, and reassure the public about what we are selling. After all, our universe is comprised exclusively of matter and radiation, and too little is just as deadly as too much!

        While the “docketed comments” in my post above explain how to prepare a clear path towards sustainable communities and prosperity, that path also has to be elegantly designed, before we can seriously begin selling nuclear power…

  3. I think by the second half of the 21st century there will be too many of us to use conventional combustion as a major energy source even if CO2 weren’t a problem. What we’re burning now is mostly carbon materials coal, oil and gas that have had up to a quarter billion years (Permian era) to upgrade to energy dense fuels. Near realtime harvesting of hay or wood won’t be enough since by my estimate photosynthesis only converts about 0.5% or less of sunlight into dry fuel. Cave persons got by burning wood then discovered coal which started the progression up the EROEI sequence. I don’t think we can go backwards.

    Ironically some future energy forms such as synthetic jet fuel may have to use hydrogen from nuclear combined with carbon from say garbage gasification. if we don’t do this the wheels will stop turning. I think it’s fission, fusion or perish.

  4. Well the subtitle of my book “The Power Makers’ Challenge” was subtitled “And the Need for Fission Energy”. A main part of my book was titled “Fission Energy”, but I never got round to patenting “Fission Energy” as a trade mark – just kidding!

  5. Ha. I think you guys are coming pretty close to physics text book definitions here 😉 Energy being loosely classified as kinetic, potential (chemical, electric, gravitational), electro-magnetic (radiation), etc etc.

    When looking at today’s sources, nuclear alone clings closely to it scientific roots for its name. Being a physics graduate I quite like this actually, but it seems like it may be off-putting to some. I’m not sure whether uranium or fission would result in more neutral/positive associations since they are still quite sciencey, but it would be interesting to see the research.

    A further consideration is that a ‘re-brand’ has happened before. ‘Atomic’ was gradually replaced by ‘nuclear’ in some countries. I don’t know how or why this took place, but it seems that the negative associations simply transferred to the new word. Fear of atomic bombs became fear of nuclear weapons. Any new change of label would want to avoid this if possible.

    Final consideration is that it’s hard (although perhaps not impossible) to control what people call you. If you go calling it fission and people don’t know what that means then you have created a new barrier to communication, not an aid. The list of intuitive alternatives is somewhat thin unfortunately.

    My current preference is to be nuclear and proud of it. Ultimately we want to change people’s perceptions and not their language. If we are looked on as confusing the subject or hiding it then it could go down badly. However, I would be very happy to change this view in light of solid evidence suggesting it could change preconceptions and that people found the new term acceptable.

    Unfortunately, given the huge popular appeal of the brand ‘renewables’ I don’t think we’ll see that label changed – despite the fact that it is hopelessly unfit for purpose.

    1. Great points. This was no serious belief that I could trigger a terminology change. As with most of my musings, it’s an effort to trigger better thinking. Hopefully this helps.

      In my public speaking and outreach I have found the “fission… it’s not combustion” has caused a few pennies to drop. See my video edited by Gordon McDowell and my podcast on The Adelaide Show, pointing out the fact that there are no chimneys. It makes an impression.

      It takes me right back to the beginning of my own journey, circa 2006/07, and realising I actually had not a the faintest idea of how a nuclear power plant even worked. We talk about burning nuclear fuel when we do nothing of the sort. “Burning” is an inaccurate colloquialism that belies the marvel of fission. At this most fundamental level, nuclear energy is grouped with combustion in people’s minds. I think that’s worth breaking.

      So I’m not inclined to jettison the word nuclear and it would probably be a fruitless effort. However I am inclined to add these distinctions to my tool kit as a communications aid.

      1. Your ‘fission is not combustion’ point really made an impression on me too. It’s easy to forget for those of us who think about energy everyday that most people just don’t, and will therefore probably casually group nuclear energy with things they are familiar with, i.e. combustion. I think people do naturally associate heat with fire, almost on a primal level

        Perhaps an analogy could help – although probably not. If we talk about coal, biomass and oil being red meat, natural gas being white meat and fish, then nuclear energy is the veggie fake-meat option. Same great taste and protein (more or less) with just about none of the considerations. The different renewables get to be various fruits and vegetables 🙂

  6. My comment to the California Energy Commission on Diablo Canyon is entitled “Fission and Combustion are Alternatives”. I will mention, a propos of “at our homes […] we have no accessible motion resource,” that in the late 19th & early 20th centuries, in some places (London at least), hydraulic power, delivered via a special water supply, was one of the available utilities.

  7. More evidence coal kills people
    In that 8 years of health monitoring they could replace the 1.6 GW Hazelwood with its 1250 grams of CO2 per kwh with a large NPP producing effectively zero onsite CO2.

    Not only that but Hazelwood’s owner Engie formerly GDF-Suez have been dropping strong hints they would like to exit brown coal burning. The cooling pond, switchyard and transmission is all there for a coal-to-nuclear swap. Greens leader Di Natale wants Hazelwood replaced with unspecified ‘clean energy’.

  8. After Hazelwood, other brownfield conversions must follow. These include NSW’s existing black coal power stations Eraring (coastal, circa 1981), Vales Point (Coastal, circa 1977), Liddell, (Hunter River, 1971) and Bayswater (Hunter river, 1985), Wallerawang (Inland) and Mt PIper (inland, 1990?) could proceed in parallel with Loy Yang A & B and other current and former brown coal sites in Victoria.

    The total, commissioned over a couple of decades, could provide over 20 GW reliable power at 90+% capacity factor with no need for new transmission lines. All of this would be in existing communities, drawing on existing labor pools, skills bases and cooling water supplies. If managed cooperatively, 3 or 4 basic designs of fission power plant would suffice: say, two Generation II/III plus one Generation IV fast reactor design.

    Land: All would be sited on much smaller land footprints than the similarly sized existing plant.

    Water: Water consumption per MWh could increase as a result of less efficient thermodynamics due to lower temperature steam cycle. This can be designed out by use of dry cooling.

    That is a huge positive for the environment and for eastern Australia’s energy security for many decades.

  9. Surely first cab off the rank is Pt Augusta’s 540 MW Northern Power station that was going to close next month now May I think. The regional mayors (Whyalla, Pt Augusta, Pt Pirie) say they are open to NP but if seawater cooling is the aim I think a new thermal station should be on a greenfields site. Open water frontage should give summer water temps more like 22C not the 30C in the top of Spencer Gulf.

    Without more transmission capacity (870 MW max) SA should get a sub-gigawatt NPP. The big units should go in the Latrobe and Hunter Valleys. Note Westinghouse have given a quote of $A17.5bn for twin AP1000s with ‘high local input’.

  10. To avoid need to replace existing switchyards, new units need to be similar sizes to existing,typically 500MW and 660MW. This will be resolved very early in the Options Study phase of the project.

    Thus, AP1000’s might get significant cost competition on brownfield sites from NPP’s below 700MW.

    That is the primary reason I suggested three fleets of Gen II/III, of approx sizes 1000, 660 and 500 MW. South Australia’s situation certainly suggests greenfield locations, say 2 x 500MW or smaller and not on the same site, in order to avoid risk of system collapse if that site is lost, eg due to vandalism or natural disaster taking out transmission lines from the site.

    Maybe 1 x air cooled sited at Northern to obtain the brownfield advantages, although with the penalty of reduced thermal efficiency.

  11. A spot I think would suit is Second Valley, Fleurieu Peninsula,_South_Australia
    which is near SA’s first wind farm Starfish Hill so they can alter transmission corridors if they really want to. The vacant 2.5 sq km Pt Stanvac site near Adelaide is plenty large enough but surrounded by nimbys despite benzene contaminated soil.

    The thing about Whyalla-Pt Augusta-Pt Pirie is they appreciate new industry.

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