Why nuclear? There is a clear need for new generating capacity around the world, both to replace old fossil fuel units, especially coal-fired ones, which emit a lot of carbon dioxide, and to meet increased demand for electricity in many countries. In 2016, 65.0% of electricity was generated from the burning of fossil fuels. Despite the strong support for, and growth in, intermittent renewable electricity sources in recent years, the fossil fuel contribution to power generation has remained virtually unchanged in the last 10 years or so.
A short introduction
Nuclear energy is the energy in the nucleus (core) of an atom. Atoms are tiny particles that make up every object in the universe. There is enormous energy in the bonds that hold atoms together. Nuclear energy can be used to make electricity, given that this energy can be released. This can happen in two ways: nuclear fusion and nuclear fission.
In nuclear fusion, energy is released when atoms are combined or fused together to form a larger atom. This is how the sun produces energy. In nuclear fission, atoms are split apart to form smaller atoms, releasing energy. Nuclear power plants use nuclear fission to produce electricity. Nuclear reactions involve changes in an atom’s nucleus and thus cause a change in the atom itself. Unlike normal chemical reactions that form molecules, nuclear reactions result in the transmutation of one element into a different isotope or a different element altogether. There are two types of nuclear reactions. The first is the radioactive decay of bonds within the nucleus that emit radiation as it decays or transforms to a more stable state. The second is the ‘billiard ball’ type of reactions, where the nucleus or a nuclear particle (like a proton) is slammed into by another nucleus or nuclear particle.
In a nutshell, nuclear energy comes from splitting atoms (nuclear fission) inside a reactor which in turn proceeds with heating water, turning it into steam, which eventually turns a turbine and generates electricity.
Nuclear energy and fossil fuel energy have similarities in the way they are extracted. The basis behind running a fossil fuel power plant can be illustrated by examining a typical fire. In this instance, organic matter such as wood or natural gas is burned and converted into CO2. In this case, we change which atoms bond to each other and harvest the energy that is released when they reach a more stable configuration (as CO2). In a nuclear power plant, we are doing the same thing: extracting energy from atoms that ultimately gets converted to electricity.
However, in a nuclear reaction, we don’t just rearrange which atoms bond to which. We change the atoms themselves, and the energy released is enormous.
In a nuclear reaction, the nucleus of the atom breaks into several pieces and releases an immense amount of energy. This process is known as nuclear fission. The nucleus we break apart for energy in most nuclear power plants is that of the uranium atom, specifically uranium-235 (that number indicates the total number of neutrons and protons in the nucleus).
To start a fire, which is an ongoing chemical reaction, we merely need some friction. Ongoing nuclear reactions do not begin so easily. To initiate the chain of reactions that supply us with energy in a nuclear power plant, we must bombard the uranium rod with high-energy neutrons. After we do this, the uranium breaks into two smaller nuclei (e.g. krypton and barium) and ejects several high-energy neutrons that cause more uranium to undergo fission.
This chain reaction provides a lot of energy, and the best part is that it does so without emitting any CO2. In fact, the only CO2 emitted due to nuclear power plants is what’s released indirectly from developing the construction materials! How does this compare to other energy sources? Coal power emits the equivalent of 820 g CO2 worth of greenhouse gases for every kilowatt-hour (g CO2eq/kWh) of electricity produced. (A kWh is a standard unit of energy used in billing by electrical utilities). Natural gas has a lower output at 490 g CO2eq/kWh. Nuclear power, gives about a mere 16G CO2/kWh. This is the lowest of all commercial baseload energy sources.
In the USA, Westinghouse designed the first fully commercial PWR (pressurized water reactor) of 250 MWe, Yankee Rowe, which started up in 1960 and operated to 1992. Meanwhile the boiling water reactor was developed by the Argonne National Laboratory, and the first one, Dresden-1 of 250 MWe, designed by General Electric, was started up earlier in 1960. A prototype BWR, Vallecitos, ran from 1957 to 1963. By the end of the 1960s, orders were being placed for PWR and BWR reactor units of more than 1000 MWe. Canadian reactor development headed down a quite different track, using natural uranium fuel and heavy water as a moderator and coolant. The first unit started up in 1962. This CANDU design continues to be refined. France started out with a gas-graphite design similar to Magnox and the first reactor started up in 1956. Commercial models operated from 1959. It then settled on three successive generations of standardized PWRs, which was a very cost-effective strategy. In 1964 the first two Soviet nuclear power plants were commissioned. A 100 MW boiling water graphite channel reactor began operating in Beloyarsk (Urals). In Novovoronezh (Volga region) a new design – a small (210 MW) pressurized water reactor (PWR) was built. They quickly proceeded with building newer RBMK reactors which would evolve into the standardized model. In Kazakhstan the world’s first commercial prototype fast neutron reactor (the BN-350) started up in 1972 with a design capacity of 135 MWe (net), producing electricity and heat to desalinate Caspian seawater. In the USA, UK, France and Russia a number of experimental fast neutron reactors produced electricity from 1959, the last of these closing in 2009. Around the world, with few exceptions, other countries have chosen light-water designs for their nuclear power programs, so that today 69% of the world capacity is PWR and 20% BWR.
In relation to nuclear power, safety is closely linked with security, and in the nuclear field also with safeguards. Some distinctions apply:
- Safety focuses on unintended conditions or events leading to radiological releases from authorized activities. It relates mainly to intrinsic problems or hazards.
- Security focuses on the intentional misuse of nuclear or other radioactive materials by non-state elements to cause harm. It relates mainly to external threats to materials or facilities.
- Safeguards focus on restraining activities by states that could lead to acquisition or development of nuclear weapons. It concerns mainly materials and equipment in relation to rogue governments. (See also information paper on Safeguards.)
No industry is immune from accidents, but all industries learn from them. In civil aviation, there are accidents every year and each is meticulously analyzed. The lessons from nearly one hundred years’ experience mean that reputable airlines are extremely safe. In the chemical industry and oil-gas industry, major accidents also lead to improved safety. There is wide public acceptance that the risks associated with these industries are an acceptable trade-off for our dependence on their products and services.
With nuclear power, the high energy density makes the potential hazard obvious, and this has always been factored into the design of nuclear power plants. In the 1950s attention turned to harnessing the power of the atom in a controlled way, as demonstrated at Chicago in 1942 and subsequently for military research, and applying the steady heat yield to generate electricity. This naturally gave rise to concerns about accidents and their possible effects. However, with nuclear power, safety depends on much the same factors as in any comparable industry: intelligent planning, proper design with conservative margins and back-up systems, high-quality components and a well-developed safety culture in operations.
The operating lives of reactors depend on maintaining their safety margin. A particular nuclear scenario was loss of cooling which resulted in melting of the nuclear reactor core, and this motivated studies on both the physical and chemical possibilities as well as the biological effects of any dispersed radioactivity. Those responsible for nuclear power technology in the West devoted extraordinary effort to ensuring that a meltdown of the reactor core would not take place, since it was assumed that a meltdown of the core would create a major public hazard, and if uncontained, a tragic accident with likely multiple fatalities. In avoiding such accidents, the industry has been very successful. In over 17,000 cumulative reactor-years of commercial operation in 33 countries, there have been only three major accidents to nuclear power plants – Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima – the second being of little relevance to reactor designs outside the old Soviet bloc. The three significant accidents in the 50-year history of civil nuclear power generation are:
- Three Mile Island (USA 1979) where the reactor was severely damaged but radiation was contained and there were no adverse health or environmental consequences.
- Chernobyl (Ukraine 1986) where the destruction of the reactor by steam explosion and fire killed two people initially plus a further 28 from radiation poisoning within three months, and had significant health and environmental consequences.
- Fukushima (Japan 2011) where three old reactors (together with a fourth) were written off after the effects of loss of cooling due to a huge tsunami were inadequately contained. There were no deaths or serious injuries due to radioactivity, though about 19,000 people were killed by the tsunami.
These three significant accidents occurred during more than 17,000 reactor-years of civil operation. Of all the accidents and incidents, only the Chernobyl and Fukushima accidents resulted in radiation doses to the public greater than those resulting from the exposure to natural sources. The Fukushima accident resulted in some radiation exposure of workers at the plant, but not such as to threaten their health, unlike Chernobyl. Other incidents (and one ‘accident’) have been completely confined to the plant. Apart from Chernobyl, no nuclear workers or members of the public have ever died as a result of exposure to radiation due to a commercial nuclear reactor incident. Most of the serious radiological injuries and deaths that occur each year (2-4 deaths and many more exposures above regulatory limits) are the result of large uncontrolled radiation sources, such as abandoned medical or industrial equipment.
It should be emphasized that a commercial-type power reactor simply cannot under any circumstances explode like a nuclear bomb – the fuel is not enriched beyond about 5%, and much higher enrichment is needed for explosives.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) was set up by the United Nations in 1957. One of its functions was to act as an auditor of world nuclear safety, and this role was increased greatly following the Chernobyl accident. It prescribes safety procedures and the reporting of even minor incidents. Its role has been strengthened since 1996. Every country which operates nuclear power plants has a nuclear safety inspectorate which works closely with the IAEA.
Today’s nuclear reality
Around 11% of the world’s electricity is generated by about 450 nuclear power reactors. About 60 more reactors are under construction, equivalent to about 15% of existing capacity. In 2017 nuclear plants supplied 2487 TWh of electricity, up from 2477 TWh in 2016.
Canada has 19 operable nuclear reactors, with a combined net capacity of 13.5 GWe. In 2017, nuclear generated 15% of the country’s electricity. All but one of the country’s 19 nuclear reactors are sited in Ontario. In the first part of 2016 the government signed major contracts for the refurbishment and operating lifetime extension of six reactors at the Bruce generating station. The program will extend the operating lifetimes by 30-35 years. Similar refurbishment work enabled Ontario to phase out coal in 2014, achieving one of the cleanest electricity mixes in the world.
Mexico has two operable nuclear reactors, with a combined net capacity of 1.6 GWe. In 2017, nuclear generated 6% of the country’s electricity.
The USA has 98 operable nuclear reactors, with a combined net capacity of 99.4 GWe. In 2017, nuclear generated 20% of the country’s electricity. There had been four AP1000 reactors under construction, but two of these have been halted. Over the last 15 years, improved operational performance has increased utilization of US nuclear power plants, with the increased output equivalent to 19 new 1000 MWe plants being built. 2016 saw the first new nuclear power reactor enter operation in the country for 20 years. Despite this, the number of operable reactors has reduced in recent years, from a peak of 104 in 2012. Early closures have been brought on by a combination of factors including cheap natural gas, market liberalization, over-subsidy of renewable sources, and political campaigning.
Argentina has three reactors, with a combined net capacity of 1.7 GWe. In 2017, the country generated 5% of its electricity from nuclear.
Brazil has two reactors, with a combined net capacity of 1.9 GWe. In 2017, nuclear generated 3% of the country’s electricity.
West & Central Europe
Belgium has seven operable nuclear reactors, with a combined net capacity of 5.9 GWe. In 2017, nuclear generated 50% of the country’s electricity.
Finland has four operable nuclear reactors, with a combined net capacity of 2.8 GWe. In 2017, nuclear generated 33% of the country’s electricity. A fifth reactor – a 1720 MWe EPR – is under construction, and there are plans to build a Russian VVER-1200 unit at a new site (Hanhikivi).
France has 58 operable nuclear reactors, with a combined net capacity of 63.1 GWe. In 2017, nuclear generated 72% of the country’s electricity. A 2015 energy policy had aimed to reduce the country’s share of nuclear generation to 50% by 2025. In November 2017, the French government postponed this target. The country’s energy minister said that the target was not realistic, and that it would increase the country’s carbon dioxide emissions, endanger security of supply and put jobs at risk.
Germany is phasing out nuclear generation by about 2022 as part of its Energiewende policy. Energiewende, widely identified as the most ambitious national climate change mitigation policy, has yet to deliver a meaningful reduction in carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. In 2011, the year after the policy was introduced, Germany emitted 731 Mt CO2 from fuel combustion; in 2015, the country emitted 730 Mt CO2, and remained the world’s sixth-biggest emitter of CO2. The German government expects to miss its target of a 40% reduction in emissions relative to 1990 levels by a wide margin.
The Netherlands has a single operable nuclear reactor, with a net capacity of 0.5 GWe. In 2017, nuclear generated 3% of the country’s electricity.
Spain has seven operable nuclear reactors, with a combined net capacity of 7.1 GWe. In 2017, nuclear generated 21% of the country’s electricity.
Sweden has eight operable nuclear combined net capacity of 8.4 GWe. In 2017, nuclear generated 40% of the country’s electricity. The country is closing down some older reactors, but has invested heavily in operating lifetime extensions and updates.
Switzerland has five operable nuclear reactors, with a combined net capacity of 3.3 GWe. In 2017, nuclear generated 33% of the country’s electricity.
The UK has 15 operable nuclear reactors, with a combined net capacity of 8.9 GWe. In 2017, nuclear generated 19% of the country’s electricity. A UK government energy paper in mid-2006 endorsed the replacement of the country’s ageing fleet of nuclear reactors with new nuclear build. Construction has commenced on the first of some 12.5 GWe of new-generation plants.
Central and Eastern Europe
Armenia has a single nuclear power reactor with a net capacity of 0.4 GWe. In 2017, nuclear generated 33% of the country’s electricity.
Belarus has its first nuclear power plant under construction, and plans to have it operating from 2019. The project is financed by Russia. At present almost all of the country’s electricity is produced from natural gas.
Bulgaria has two operable nuclear reactors, with a combined net capacity of 1.9 GWe. In 2017, nuclear generated 34% of the country’s electricity.
The Czech Republic has six operable nuclear reactors, with a combined net capacity of 3.9 GWe. In 2017, nuclear generated 33% of the country’s electricity.
Hungary has four operable nuclear reactors, with a combined net capacity of 1.9 GWe. In 2017, nuclear generated 50% of the country’s electricity.
Romania has two operable nuclear reactors, with a combined net capacity of 1.3 GWe. In 2017, nuclear generated 18% of the country’s electricity.
Russia has 36 operable nuclear reactors, with a combined net capacity of 28.0 GWe. In 2017, nuclear generated 18% of the country’s electricity. A government decree in 2016 specified construction of 11 nuclear power reactors by 2030, in addition to those already under construction. At the start of 2019, Russia had six reactors under construction, with a combined capacity of 4.9 GWe. The strength of Russia’s nuclear industry is reflected in its dominance of export markets for new reactors. The country’s national nuclear industry is currently involved in new reactor projects in Belarus, China, Hungary, India, Iran and Turkey, and to varying degrees as an investor in Algeria, Bangladesh, Bolivia, Indonesia, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Nigeria, South Africa, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan among others.
Slovakia has four operable nuclear reactors, with a combined net capacity of 1.8 GWe. In 2017, nuclear generated 54% of the country’s electricity. A further two units are under construction, with the first unit due to enter commercial operation before the end of the decade.
Slovenia has a single operable nuclear reactor with a net capacity of 0.7 GWe. In 2017, Slovenia generated 39% its electricity from nuclear.
Ukraine has 15 operable nuclear reactors, with a combined net capacity of 13.1 GWe. In 2017, nuclear generated 55% of the country’s electricity.
Turkey commenced construction of its first nuclear power plant in April 2018, with start of operation expected in 2023.
Bangladesh started construction on the first of two planned Russian VVER-1200 reactors in 2017. It plans to have the first unit in operation by 2023. The country currently produces virtually all of its electricity from fossil fuels.
China has 45 operable nuclear reactors, with a combined net capacity of 43.0 GWe. In 2017, nuclear generated 4% of the country’s electricity. The country continues to dominate the market for new nuclear build. At the start of 2019, 13 of the 57 reactors under construction globally were in China. In 2018 China became the first country to commission two new designs – the AP1000 and the EPR. China is commencing export marketing of the Hualong One, a largely indigenous reactor design. The strong impetus for developing new nuclear power in China comes from the need to improve urban air quality and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The government’s stated long-term target, as outlined in its Energy Development Strategy Action Plan 2014-2020 is for 58 GWe capacity by 2020, with 30 GWe more under construction.
India has 22 operable nuclear reactors, with a combined net capacity of 6.2 GWe. In 2017, nuclear generated 3% of the country’s electricity. The Indian government is committed to growing its nuclear power capacity as part of its massive infrastructure development program. The government in 2010 set an ambitious target to have 14.6 GWe nuclear capacity online by 2024. At the start of 2019 seven reactors were under construction in India, with a combined capacity of 5.4 GWe.
Japan has 37 operable nuclear reactors, with a combined net capacity of 36.1 GWe. At the start of 2019, only nine reactors had been brought back online, with a further 17 in the process of restart approval, following the Fukushima accident in 2011. In the past, 30% of the country’s electricity has come from nuclear; in 2017, the figure was just 4%.
South Korea has 23 operable nuclear reactors, with a combined net capacity of 22 GWe. In 2017, nuclear generated 27% of the country’s electricity.
South Korea has four new reactors under construction domestically as well as four in the United Arab Emirates. It plans for two more, after which energy policy is uncertain. It is also involved in intense research on future reactor designs.
Pakistan has five operable nuclear reactors, with a combined net capacity of 1.4 GWe. In 2017, nuclear generated 6% of the country’s electricity. Pakistan has two Chinese Hualong One units under construction.
South Africa has two operable nuclear reactors, with a combined net capacity of 1.8 GWe, and is the only African country currently producing electricity from nuclear. In 2017, nuclear generated 7% of the country’s electricity. South Africa remains committed to plans for further capacity, but financing constraints are significant.
Iran has a single operable nuclear reactor with a net capacity of 0.9 GWe. In 2017, nuclear generated 2% of the country’s electricity.
The United Arab Emirates is building four 1450 MWe South Korean reactors at a cost of over USD 20 billion, and is collaborating closely with the International Atomic Energy Agency and experienced international firms.
Emerging nuclear energy countries as outlined above, Bangladesh, Belarus, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates are all constructing their first nuclear power plants. A number of other countries are moving towards use of nuclear energy for power production. (For more information, see page on Emerging Nuclear Energy Countries).
In addition to commercial nuclear power plants, there are about 225 research reactors operating in over 50 countries, with more under construction. As well as being used for research and training, many of these reactors produce medical and industrial isotopes.
The use of reactors for marine propulsion is mostly confined to the major navies where it has played an important role for five decades, providing power for submarines and large surface vessels. At least 140 ships, mostly submarines, are propelled by some 180 nuclear reactors and over 13,000 reactor years of experience have been gained with marine reactors. Russia and the USA have decommissioned many of their nuclear submarines from the Cold War era.
Russia also operates a fleet of four large nuclear-powered icebreakers and has three more under construction. It is also completing a floating nuclear power plant with two 40 MWe reactors adapted from those powering icebreakers for use in remote regions.
Nuclear power is essential for energy, environment, and the economy. There is a clear need for new generating capacity around the world, both to replace old fossil fuel units, especially coal-fired ones, which emit a lot of carbon dioxide, and to meet increased demand for electricity in many countries.
The OECD International Energy Agency publishes annual scenarios related to energy. In its World Energy Outlook 2018 there is an ambitious ‘Sustainable Development Scenario’ which is consistent with the provision of clean and reliable energy and a reduction of air pollution, among other aims. In this decarbonization scenario, electricity generation from nuclear increases by almost 90% by 2040 to 4960 TWh, and capacity grows to 678 GWe.
The World Nuclear Association has put forward a more ambitious scenario than this: The Harmony program proposes the addition of 1000 GWe of new nuclear capacity by 2050, to provide 25% of electricity then (about 10,000 TWh) from 1250 GWe of capacity (after allowing for 150 GWe retirements). This would require adding 25 GWe per year from 2021, escalating to 33 GWe per year, which is not much different from the 31 GWe added in 1984, or the overall record of 201 GWe in the 1980s. Providing one-quarter of the world’s electricity through nuclear would substantially reduce carbon dioxide emissions and have a very positive effect on air quality. There is also tremendous focus on upgrading the already existing reactor capacity.
Long-term trends in capacity
While nuclear power plants are designed to be safe in their operation and safe in the event of any malfunction or accident, no industrial activity can be represented as entirely risk-free. The long-term operation (LTO) of established plants is established by significant investment in such upgrading. The safety of operating staff is a prime concern in nuclear plants. Radiation exposure is minimized by the use of remote handling equipment for many operations in the core of the reactor. Other controls include physical shielding and limiting the time workers spend in areas with significant radiation levels.
The use of nuclear energy for electricity generation can be considered extremely safe. Every year several thousand people die in coal mines to provide this widely used fuel for electricity. There are also significant health and environmental effects arising from fossil fuel use. To date, even the Fukushima accident has caused no deaths, and the IAEA reported in June 2011: “To date, no health effects have been reported in any person as a result of radiation exposure.” Subsequent WHO and UNSCEAR reports have supported this.
It was not until the late 1970s that detailed analyses and large-scale testing, followed by the 1979 meltdown of the Three Mile Island reactor, began to make clear that even the worst possible accident in a conventional western nuclear power plant or its fuel would not be likely to cause dramatic public harm. The industry still works hard to minimize the probability of a meltdown accident, but it is now clear that no-one needs fear a potential public health catastrophe simply because a fuel meltdown happens. Fukushima has made that clear, with a triple meltdown causing no fatalities or serious radiation doses to anyone, while over two hundred people continued working on the site to mitigate the accident’s effects.
Fossil fuels have a host of problems themselves. The by-products from burning fossil fuels are toxic pollutants that produce ozone, toxic organic aerosols, particulate matter, and heavy metals. The World Health Organization has stated the urban air pollution, which is a mixture of all of the chemicals just described, causes 7 million deaths annually or about 1 in 8 of total deaths. Furthermore, coal power plants release more radioactive material per kWh into the environment in the form of coal ash than does waste from a nuclear power plant under standard shielding protocols. This means that, under normal operations, the radioactive waste problem associated with one of the most mainstream energy sources in use actually exceeds that from nuclear energy. In fact, on a per kWh of energy produced basis, both the European Union and the Paul Scherrer Institute, the largest Swiss national research institute, found an interesting trend regarding the fatalities attributable to each energy source.
Dangers associated with nuclear power are, in many ways, different from the dangers we face from other methods of getting energy. This might explain why fear of nuclear power persists and why the above fatality rates may surprise you. However, we know that nuclear energy does not produce the greenhouse gases that fossil fuels have been producing for over a century. Research also concludes that the more familiar dangers from using fossil fuels claim far more lives. Furthermore, with the advent of modern reactors such as the pebble-bed reactor and careful selection of plant sites, nuclear accidents like the one in Fukushima are actually not possible. When balanced with these notable benefits, the problems associated with nuclear power do not justify its immediate dismissal as a potential energy source for the world.
Welcome to the nuclear dark side
Meltdowns like the ones in Fukushima or Chernobyl released enormous amounts of radiation into the surrounding communities, forcing hundreds of thousands of people to evacuate. Many of them may never come back. There is still no safe, reliable solution for dealing with the radioactive waste produced by nuclear plants. Every waste dump in the U.S. leaks radiation into the environment, and nuclear plants themselves are running out of ways to store highly radioactive waste on site. The site selected to store the U.S.’s radioactive waste — Yucca Mountain in Nevada — is both volcanically and seismically active.
Nuclear risks to the environment: a nuclear disaster leads to immediate soil pollution and environmental pollution, contaminating all regions nearby for years. Even if we are told loud and clear that nuclear power plants are ultra-secure sites, is there really a safe nuclear facility? Human error, a climatic event or a technical failure are all possibilities for triggering a nuclear catastrophe. From an environmental point of view, many risks are still poorly taken into account, especially during the treatment of nuclear materials and waste. What happens to these radioactive substances, created every day to produce electricity (uranium, plutonium…)? When they cannot be stored in specialized, numerous and saturated centers, the most dangerous substances (i.e. those that will take thousands of years to become ‘non-toxic’) will simply be buried deeply! Thus, in 2016, the State gave the green light for the continuation of the project of industrial center of geological storage (Cigeo) in Bure. But you can imagine that toxic materials, which cannot be recycled, will not remain wisely in depth, but will inevitably rise to the surface, with the consequences that we already know: contamination of water and soils for years and over large areas.
Nuclear risks to health: if nuclear power plants affect the environment, they also play a role in the increase of diseases in certain regions via radiation. This is how it kills our cells, causes cancers or even malformations. Can we speak of a mere coincidence between the nuclear experiments in Polynesia and the exponential increase in thyroid cancer in women during this same period and still today?
Nuclear risks in the territory: we all remember the Chernobyl accident or the more recent Fukushima accident. But many other disasters have occurred since then, in nuclear power stations but also during the storage and/or transport of radioactive materials.
Today, 80% of the nuclear power plants in operation in the world are over 20 years old. A power plant with a lifetime of only 30 years, a major challenge awaits us… The signs are already visible for a few years already and very recently, the fruit of an aging French nuclear:
- At the beginning of February 2017, the Cattenom nuclear power plant in the Moselle (inaugurated in 1986) had to deal with a major fire which did not affect “any sensitive zone of the plant”… A week later, declares itself. Luxembourg is prepared to co-finance the closure and conversion of the Cattenom power plant itself for fear of being “wiped off the map”!
On February 9, 2017, the Flamanville nuclear power plant (also in 1986) experienced a fire start and an explosion in one of the engine rooms, causing the intoxication of five people. If there would be no environmental risk according to the prefecture, this was not the case in 2014…
After an unsuccessful attempt to restart, the Tricastin nuclear power plant (1980) experienced several detonations and an impressive smoke release. If EDF certified on that day that there had been no release into the environment, it returned to its statement one year later and eventually confessed that there were indeed radioactive releases of tritium.
In view of these various recent events (and the list is still long), the safety of nuclear power in France is becoming even more worrying.
There has not been a more scrutinized and yet promising technology than nuclear energy. It is true that, as with almost every technological breakthrough, the initial idea was designed for sinister intentions; the Japanese can surely attest to that. The Japanese can also attest very well in what happens when accidents around this subject happen and indeed Fukushima has been a terrible blow environmentally. Just because we cannot even fathom the scale and measure the effects of the meltdown yet, it does not mean that they do not exist; we should not wait for the radioactive sharks with tentacles to come out and chase us for dinner just to admit that the Pacific is suffering due to Fukushima. The Japanese though, as the Ukrainians (after Chernobyl) and admittedly the rest of humanity have shown resilience, ability to learn from their mistakes, hunger for progress and an almost limitless demand for energy. This can all help make nuclear energy sustainable and primarily safe. The progress in the field of nuclear safety has been not just significant but immense and it is proven that it can be an almost limitless and safe source of energy.
Either way, as the world leaps forward, we, the humans, must decide how we want to envision and incarnate it. Nuclear energy offers us a window indeed through which we get a glimpse into tomorrow: it will either be a sustainable and safe habitat or an apocalyptic radioactive wasteland.