December/January - Issue 159 - Magazine | Monocle

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energy ––– global
The nuclear option

Alexis Self on a man who’s fighting to make the case for the alternative energy source with a shakey reputation.

Alternative-energy advocates haven’t had to work very hard to make a case for their favoured power sources recently. Except for one, that is. Nuclear power is still the most controversial of all the low-carbon energy sources. The main reasons: Chernobyl and Fukushima.


Nuclear power-plant architect Iain Macdonald believes that historic disasters have distorted the world’s view of what he says is a relatively safe energy source. “When I read the mit report on Fukushima, the actual facility came out very well,” he tells monocle. “And if you look at Chernobyl, they undertook an experiment in Soviet times in which they ran a reactor with the brakes off. That’s like getting into a Formula One car with no brakes.” 

Macdonald is the founder and ceo of Instance BV, an Amsterdam-based design studio that focuses on smart cities and nuclear power complexes. Before Instance, as a director at architectural firm Scott Brownrigg, he was involved in designing large-scale nuclear facilities such as Hinkley Point C and Moorside. It’s a good time to be in the business, with even previously nuclear-sceptic countries such as Germany and Japan beginning to rethink their stance, and both France and the US pouring money into nuclear: President Biden recently set up a $6bn (€5.8bn) fund to modernise the nation’s nuclear power plants and make the sector more economically competitive. But if Macdonald had his way, nuclear energy would be produced and apportioned at the neighbourhood level. 

Modern cities have become too diffuse, he says, with people living in one corner and working in another. These journeys are also undertaken by our energy and data, which are either concentrated in faraway post-industrial spaces or housed in unattractive substations. If they were better integrated, Macdonald argues, cities would be more efficient and less carbon intensive. 


As a member of mit’s Advanced Nuclear and Production Experts Group, Macdonald has been working on the design of nuclear batteries that could be used to power thousands of homes or several office blocks. For him, it’s about dispelling the notion that any nuclear reactor is a ticking time-bomb. “Before, the nuclear debate was about ‘safety, certainty and security,’” he says, “But now we’re also talking about ‘perception, understanding and acceptance.’” The construction of nuclear reactors, even far away from cities, can provoke disdain among the local population. So part of the nuclear lobby’s mission must involve persuasion – much of it focused on reducing the concerns surrounding the prospect of nuclear disaster. “If you look at the blast in Beirut, Union Carbide, the Gulf oil spill, and you look at deaths per energy production, wind and nuclear are at the bottom,” says Macdonald. 

He’s right that nuclear disasters don’t tend to have initially high casualties but people’s fears are derived from the insidiousness of the threat if disaster does strike. Amid shifting geopolitical sands and the growing clamour for low-carbon energy, the nuclear lobby’s persuasiveness needs powering up. In Macdonald they possess an asset capable of achieving this.


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