30 April 2021
Caring about the environment has traditionally focused on the scarcity of natural resources, but with nuclear power a healthier world can also mean abundance for all, environmentalist Ben Heard said today at the Atoms for Humanity discussion on Why Humanity Needs Nuclear produced by Russia's Rosatom. Heard is an advocate for nuclear power in his native Australia, through his directorship of environmental NGO Bright New World.
Kirsty Gogan and Ben Heard at the Atoms for Humanity discussion
The discussion centred on the social, environmental and global partnerships aspects of the United Nation's Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). It was moderated by Kirsty Gogan, managing partner at LucidCatalyst and a co-founder of TerraPraxis.
Asked about SDGs 13, 14 and 15, which concern, respectively, climate change, life under water and life on land, Heard first described how his own environmentalism had changed once he came to understand the benefits of nuclear energy.
"It was 10 years ago this year that I first spoke up publicly to say that I had changed my mind on this particular issue; an issue that had felt really consequential to my identity as someone who really cared about the environment," he said.
This change required personal reflection and a consideration of the professional exposure it would entail.
"It turned out to be a really positive experience in a lot of ways. It brought me into contact with a whole new world and a great many new people who were starting to think in these ways as well. Even better than that, it really opened up my thinking and my ideas to realise that, if we can take the energy challenge and meet it with something that we can really scale up, then we can also tackle so many of these other sustainability and conservation challenges in really intelligent and exciting ways to make a better world.
"It was really transformational in my thinking - how to preserve the environment, how to care for the world around us - that has been very challenging, very difficult, sometimes confrontational, but ultimately very rewarding. And I'm glad to see and sense that there's a real change now in thinking that's becoming much more widespread and that gives me real hope for what's going to happen next."
Three decades ago, the main environmental concerns, he said, were deforestation, acid rain and air pollution.
"Climate change came a little later and became something very all-encompassing, and it is. It is already impacting biomes all over the planet and it's going to impact the chemistry of our oceans," he said. "I'm struck by the fact that it was climate change that got me interested in nuclear technologies."
The word 'clean' applies to nuclear energy in a 'holistic' way, he said. For example, the absence of air pollution and what that means for the health of people, settlements and ecosystems. Another important benefit of nuclear energy, in contrast to some other clean energy technologies, concerns land use.
"The last thing I want to see us doing is liquidating scarce natural landscapes in the name of tackling climate change. It seems to be in tension with the values that we're trying to address. The beauty of nuclear technology is that it takes that tension out of the picture. We can have that energy at scale, and the clean air and the clean water, and preserve our landscapes, and actually help to begin restoring them, which is for me extremely powerful."
He described the role of nuclear energy in clean energy systems as "where really beautiful synergies start to happen".