Speaker Spotlight: Prof. Gerry Thomas

25 March 2019

As we enter our 14th consecutive year of this flagship annual event, there has never been a more appropriate theme than “U and the Future”.

The conference has secured some excellent keynote speakers and we recently asked Prof. Gerry Thomas for her views on the industry.

Professor Thomas is committed to developing infrastructures for molecular pathology research and diagnosis, both for use by her own research group but also by others.   She strongly believes that public involvement and information is a key part of academic research, and is actively involved in the public communication of research, particularly with respect to radiation protection and biobanking.

Q. What impact could nuclear power have on climate change from an Australian perspective?

A. Climate change is no respecter of national boundaries, so Australia, like everywhere else, will feel its effects. Probably of most concern would be the increase in summer temperatures (as has already been seen this past summer) that will affect Australia most. It is a common misconception that cold is a killer of the vulnerable in society, whereas extreme heat is actually worse in this respect. Inability to cool homes and workplaces, either because they are poorly equipped or because the cost of doing so is prohibitive, would have a serious detriment to human health. Changes in sea temperature may make cooling off even more inviting for humans, but would have devastating effects for animal and plant life, and has the potential to radically affect the food chain, and Australian tourism alike. Switching to renewables like wind and solar will not solve the issue as you would still need to revert to another power source for baseload when the weather was not performing as you would like it to. Using nuclear power would address many of these issues – if adopted widely, and it could easily provide a single power source. As with everything the wider the adoption of the technology the cheaper it would become, and it has the potential to make a large impact on climate change mitigation.  However, we need to act quickly and decisively – climate change will not wait while we prevaricate.

Q. Name one challenge that needs to be solved today to guarantee nuclear’s crucial part in the world’s future energy mix?

A. Public acceptance of nuclear power is holding back its implementation. The constant need for novel reactor design because “they are safer” suggests that the older design of reactors in inherently unsafe, whereas the statistics show that nuclear is the safest technology for generating energy. Radiophobia contributes to overly strict radiation protection, which is then translated into health and safety regulations, which in turn leads to greater costs for the nuclear industry. The challenge is to persuade the general public and, more importantly, the politicians, that nuclear is not only the safest technology, but also, in the longer term, the cheapest technology for energy production. It is associated with none of the air pollution issues of coal, nor climate change issues of other carbon fuels, and we do actually know how to deal with the relatively small amount of waste it produces, whereas issues of how to deal with the chemical toxicity of some of the waste materials produced by wind and solar are less clear. Nuclear, along with GM crops, are two very good examples of how our unconscious biases prevent adoption of technology with considerable detriment to society.

Q. What message would you like to provide to the delegates – what do you hope will be the main message they will take away from your keynote presentation?

A. Nuclear accidents are not as bad as generally thought. Radiation itself is not the problem – our unconscious biases that lead to radiophobia drive inappropriate actions, and it is this that is the killer – not radiation itself. Decisions as important as energy policy should be driven by the scientific evidence rather than public myth.

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