Why Physicians Should Join Doctors for Nuclear Energy

Anton van der Merwe

Professor of Molecular Immunology

Sir William Dunn School of Pathology

University of Oxford

A growing number of experts believe that nuclear energy is needed to reduce net GHG emissions to zero at the required rate (1). Why?  Because sufficiently rapid reductions in GHG emissions have already been achieved using nuclear energy (either alone or with renewables) in several countries, including France, Sweden, Switzerland, and also in Ontario, all of which now produce electricity with near-zero GHG emissions.

In contrast, reaching zero GHG emissions without nuclear energy has only been achieved in the handful of countries fortunate enough to have abundant sources of reliable renewable energy, such as hydroelectric (e.g. Costa Rica, Norway, New Zealand) or geothermal (e.g. Iceland) energy. For all other countries the renewable energy sources that are available (wind & solar) present major technical challenges because of their low energy density and intermittency (2). 

Recent experience in Germany and California, which have made the biggest efforts to reduce emissions without nuclear energy, is very worrying. Despite huge investments, their greenhouse gas emissions have not decreased, and there is growing public resistance to further expansion/investment because of the adverse environmental impact of all the wind turbines/solar panels/transmissions lines required and rising electricity prices (3). While it is self-evident that using nuclear energy in addition to renewables would make it possible to reduce net GHG emissions to zero more quickly than using only renewables, independent studies also show that including nuclear energy would also greatly reduce the cost of reaching this target (4) 

So why are we not exploiting nuclear energy more aggressively? 

Largely because public safety fears and the resulting high costs of building new reactors have meant that policymakers are reluctant to pursue nuclear energy. This is why so many proposals for reducing GHG emissions advocate little role for nuclear energy and instead focus on renewables. Recent examples are the Green New Deal in the USA and proposals from the UK Climate Change Committee. Influential environmental groups such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, and political parties such as the Greens, strongly oppose nuclear energy.

While the public are repeatedly reminded of the health risks of radioactivity and nuclear accidents, they are rarely informed that these risks are MUCH lower than the health risks of using fossil fuels, and comparable to renewables (5). 

An analogy here are the risks of flying versus driving. Aircraft accidents are terrifying and receive a great deal of publicity. However reports of accidents are usually accompanied by reassuring reminders that flying is much safer than driving. This does not happen when nuclear accidents are reported and discussed. Instead accounts tend to be sensationalised, with little effort made to distinguish between the harm done by radioactivity versus the fear of radioactivity. The public is left with the false impression that nuclear energy is an especially risky way of generating electricity. 

This has led to the widespread abandonment of nuclear energy and the use of coal and other fossil fuels instead, resulting in millions of preventable deaths (6). This seems to me to be a major failure of public health policy. A failure further compounded by the resulting increase in the risk of severe climate change, which would have grave effects on human health.

The medical establishment bears some responsibility for this because they have failed to counter this inaccurate perception of risk. Indeed they have often made matters worse through organisations that strongly oppose nuclear energy, such as Physicians for Social Responsibility. When doing so they refer to the risks of nuclear waste, proliferation, and terrorism, even though the best available evidence suggests that these risks are very small. A useful contrast here is our approach to vaccines. Vaccination can have rare, catastrophic side effects, including death. Yet doctors strongly advocate vaccinations, because the health benefits outweigh the risks. We relentlessly deliver this message. As a result, vaccination remains widely accepted, despite pervasive negative campaigning. 

I believe that the medical profession has a duty to convey accurate information about the health risks of using nuclear energy versus other methods to generate  electricity.

So what can we do now? 

It would be a powerful contribution to fighting climate change and improving public health if a large number of doctors, especially those with expertise in epidemiology and public health, made a clear public statement about the relative health risks of different forms of energy generation, emphasizing the health risks of NOT using nuclear energy to reduce GHG emissions.

Interestingly, many eminent biologists, including Robert May, have made a widely reported public statement in support of nuclear energy, arguing that it is better for the environment than other forms of clean energy, and necessary to reduce the risk of severe climate change.

Supporting such a statement will take courage, given that we often belong to communities and political organisations that oppose nuclear energy and strongly prefer renewables. However, I am hopeful that you will be persuaded by the importance of this issue and the strength of the evidence.

I hope you will be sufficiently motivated and interested to help. If you are unconvinced by my arguments, I would welcome further discussion. 

All the best,

Anton van der Merwe

Professor of Molecular Immunology

Sir William Dunn School of Pathology

University of Oxford


(1) For example see Shellenberger (video); Hansen et al (editorial); Goldstein  & Qvist (editorial and book); Lynas (book); Partanen (book).  

(2) Sustainable energy without the hot air. David JC Mackay (book)

(3) (article)

(4) Nuclear power in a clean energy system (IEA); Future of nuclear energy in a carbon constrained world (MIT)

(5) Markandya, A., & Wilkinson, P. (2007). Energy and Health 2 - Electricity generation and health. Lancet, 370, 979–990

(6) Kharecha, P. A., & Hansen, J. E. (2013). Prevented mortality and greenhouse gas emissions from historical and projected nuclear power. Environmental Science & Technology, 47(9), 4889–4895


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