I grew up in Finland, where I was never far from a forest. Nature and animals were my first love, and books the second. It was not an uncommon thing for me to go out in the forest with our dogs and climb up a tree to find a good place to read.
After finishing my high school, I went on to work and study in Sweden, where I met my Swedish husband, who went to the same University - I studied biology, he physics and math. After our studies we moved to Switzerland where we have worked and started a family. We have two girls, now 5 and almost 3 years old. While I feel most at home in the Finnish countryside of northern forests and little lakes, I also adore the majestic landscapes of the alps in the Swiss countryside where we live, outside Zürich, and we love hiking and snowboarding in the mountains. Our favorite pastime now with little kids is biking or walking to the parks at the lakeshore, feeding the birds, petting the goats, cows, and ponies on the nearby farm, wading in the water and, still, climbing trees.
Being Finnish, I grew up very aware of the Chernobyl nuclear accident. The way radiation was talked about made it seem like an extraordinary kind of threat. The story we learned in school, about the Nobelists, the Curies, and about the discovery of x-rays were other examples that made radioactive materials seem very scary, holding a mysterious kind of power. There was definitely a general fear of nuclear technology, and I was sympathetic to people who demanded closure of nuclear plants. The thinking: "why allow such a risk to exist?" made sense to me at the time. For a long time I don't really remember anyone around me speaking in favor of nuclear power.
The story of a close friend was influential in helping me see nuclear power in a more nuanced way. She told me that she had been a staunch anti-nuclear activist, to the degree that she decided to continue the fight by getting herself proper credentials on the topic: she went to University to become a radiochemist. But by the time she was well into her studies she had quite reversed her view: she no longer wanted to demonstrate against nuclear power, and she told me that storage of nuclear waste no longer worried her, as learning about the methods in use had made her understand how safely the waste was in fact handled.
I had a further realization about fears of radiation being blown out of proportion when I learned how common radioactive materials are in nature: the bedrock and soil naturally contain fair amounts of uranium and radon. This risk of radiation is actually nothing new to our way of life, even if nowadays we have a new-found understanding and knowledge about it. Compared to natural background radiation, even the feared Chernobyl accident (whose fallout Finland received a large dose of) only contributed with an addition of less than one percent to the regular annual radiation dose we had, au nature.
Later on, when I started reading headlines in popular scientific journals about scientists speaking in support of nuclear technology, and describing the benefits of more advanced forms of nuclear power in development, I had the fortunate position of viewing them in a neutral light. Otherwise, being an environmentalist at heart, I might have easily been down in the trenches, calling for an end to nuclear.
What was most important, however, was when I began reading about tools for climate change mitigation. I learned that the great majority of energy experts, reviewing the potentials of all technologies, don’t see a realistic possibility for a rapid shift into 100% renewable energy. This was confounding at first, as it goes against what many climate action groups advocate. But the majority of scientists and engineers, as represented by the IPCC (the International Panel for Climate Change) and IEA (International Energy Agency), acknowledge that this kind of complete shift is not possible on this time-scale or level of technology in order to have sufficient climate-mitigating power. The important take-away message is that right now we need both, renewables and nuclear. I took it to heart.
I have been actively engaged with several energy and environment-oriented online discussion forums in past years, and what I have found most frustrating is how selectively people pick and choose when and on what topics they actually listen to the science.
Many vehemently reject the science of climate change, but on the other hand may be very open to looking at the pros and cons of different energy forms. Many of those who readily accept the science on climate change, instead choose to ignore our best scientific understanding when it comes to the solutions to lowering carbon emissions - they ideologically rule out nuclear power without looking at the evidence. They greatly respect the IPCC on statements of climate change, but decidedly ignore its careful evaluations about the actual technicalities of mitigation efforts.
In a 2014 report, the IPCC presented their review on the mitigation potentials of energy supply, and its scenarios have a mix of renewables and nuclear replacing fossil fuels – the most optimistic scenario for the role of renewables has roughly 3/5 replaced by various renewable technologies and 2/5 by nuclear power. It is clear that renewables and nuclear are both direly needed.
Unfortunately in many discussions it sounds as if renewables and nuclear are somehow on a collision course. The case is frequently presented as if it is either or – although it isn’t. They are both low-carbon energy sources that can and should help us reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. Renewables and nuclear should be friends.
I think a forest is the best place for a person to be. I don't like big cities, and love the fact that even now when we live far from the big forests of the Nordic countries, we still live in a small village, next to the lake, and have cows for neighbors. I love animals, and I’d like my children to grow up knowing that there are still tigers and rhinos and polar bears in their natural habitats somewhere on this earth. This is why it is important to me to make thoughtful choices in the way I live. Pretty early in my life, my love of nature got married to my wish to understand, and a passion for science was the fruit of that union. I find nature so interesting that I love to learn as much as I can about our natural world.
What makes me passionate about the scientific process, is its sincerity of wanting to find something out, combined with the humility of insight about our cognitive failings – like confirmation bias, jumping to conclusions, and cherry-picking – that is to say, the ease with which we can and do fool ourselves. The ease, too, with which I might have just as easily adopted the view that nuclear has to go, and held on to it without inspecting the facts in the matter more carefully. I highly value how science helps us weed out what we actually can know about the world, and helps us appreciate how amazing and intricate the stuff is that we necessarily didn’t even know was going on in it.
Many people are afraid of nuclear power. The technology appears more threatening than other energy sources. If you really start looking at the data, however, you see that there is no such energy source which would not pose some risk to the environment or to human health. Renewables have some drawbacks too, and fossil fuels most definitely do. According to careful data, nuclear power may even be among the safer choices among them. I strongly believe that we should let science and data guide our actions, so that we may avoid the greatest real risks, instead of letting a mere impression of the threat of radiation steer our path. What we as a society choose to do now in the coming years will have a great impact for the lives of our children and grandchildren.
Now is a very important time to speak up for nuclear. As my small contribution to building a better world for the generations to come, I've tried my best to give an introduction to an evidence-based overview into energy solutions in my blog piece, Energy Solutions in a Changing Climate.
I've also become a member of the Finnish Ecomodernists, an environmental movement for those who wish to protect the environment and are also committed to humanitarian values and evidence-based methods. I've additionally helped support the kick-starter campaign for the translation of the excellent Finnish book Climate Gamble - Is Anti-Nuclear Activism Endangering Our Future?