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ENERGY : NUCLEAR ENERGY
1. PRIMO, Why do we have to speak of energy?
Because air, water and energy are absolutely essential for human life. And available statistics (for 1960 to 2000) and projections (for 2000 to 2050), given by the World Energy Council, for example, show the following trends in energy consumption, taking 1960 as 100%
Year 1960 1980 2000 2020 2050
Population 3 billion 4.5 billion 6 billion 7.5 billion ~8 to 10 billion
reference x1,5 x2 x2,5 x2,7 to 3
demand (heat, 100% 210% 320% 450% over 600%
electricity and (~3 Gigateps*) (~10 Gigateps*) (~18 Gigateps*)
Electricity only 100% 400% 700% 1000% 2000%
(~2000 Tera- (15,000 Tera- (42,000 Tera-
watt-hours**) watt-hours**) watt-hours**)
*One Gigatep : the equivalent of one billion tonnes of oil
**One Terawatt-hour : one billion kiloWatt-hours
According to realistic predictions, the demand for electricity will probably triple by the year 2050 for the following five reasons:
- the general increase in the world's population,
- the increase in the fraction of the population living in cities (there are already 10 cities with over 20 millions inhabitants),
- the improvement of general well-being: today some 2 billion people have no access to a commercial supply of energy,
- the comfort and cleanliness of electrical energy as compared to other sources of energy : In 2000, electricity accounts for 35% in the worlds total energy balance already,, in 2050 the estimates are of 50% , which could mean three times todays electrical demand,
- the "explosive" increase in the demand for energy in the heavily populated developing countries. The consumption per head in China or India is now one-tenth of that in America, and one-fifth of that in France. Today less than 25 % of the world's population consumes over 75 % of the world's supply of energy!
Energy use per person per year in 1996
in TEP (equivalent of one tonne of oil)
From these figures it is clear that energy demand, especially the demand for electrical energy, will increase enormously in the developing countries; and that all sources of energy will be called upon to meet that demand: combustion of fossil fuels, water power, nuclear energy and renewable sources of energy such as biomass, wind, solar, etc.
Facing the demand, what are the means to fulfill them ?
The so-called " renewable " energies will see an increase in their demand, especially for decentralized applications or as auxiliary sources, taking into account their diffuse intensity. These energies should in no case be opposed, as some are prone to do, to nuclear energy, but they are rather complementary : the renewable energies do not need large electrical grids and could indeed play a decisive rôle for that mass of people who has no access yet to commercial energies. This under the condition that the advanced countries have to make the necessary technical and financial efforts to provide these developing countries with these energy means, albeit limited, but clean and robust, using free raw material, thus easing their development .
But nowadays oil, coal and gas together furnish about 90% of the energy, hydraulic about 3% and nuclear about 7%. Although we continue to discover new gas fields and extract more and more oil from our oil wells, we expect that these resources will begin to run out by 2050, and that their place will be taken by renewables including water power , and especially nuclear energy.
Year 2 000 2020 2050
Fossil fuel (oil, gas and coal) 86-90 % 87 % 70 %
Renewables including water power 7.5 % 6.5 % 8 %
Nuclear 6.5 % 6.5 % 22 %
Source : P.R. Bauquis (TOTAL-FINA-ELF), Revue de l'Energie, Sept. 1999.
Conclusion : nuclear energy will become unavoidable in the coming decades .
(This is just what President Putin declared also to the UNO Millenium Conference last September).
2. What are the principal CHARACTERISTICS of nuclear energy?
Do you know that nuclear energy is by far the least polluting way to produce large amounts of electricity?
2.1- The great energy content of a kilogramme of nuclear fuel compared to others:
1 kg of wood can produce 2 kWh
1 kg of coal - - - 4 kWh
1 kg oil - - - 6 kWh
1 cubic meter of gas - - 6 kWh
1 kg of uranium - - - 50,000 kWh (PWR* power station)
2,500,000 + kWh (FBR** power station)
(similar to Superphenix)
*PWR: Pressurized Water Reactor
**FBR: Fast Breeder Reactor
2.2- A nuclear power station is compact :
Nuclear or gas-fired power station 3 000 MW 150 hectares
Oil- or coal-fired station -
space is needed to store fuel on the site 3 000 MW 300 hectares
Water power, for example the 1 000 MW A few square
Grande Dixence Dam in Switzerland kilometers (km2)
Solar panels on a sunny site 1 000 MW 20-50 km2
Wind mills on a windy site 1 000 MW 50-100 km2
Biomass plantation 1 000 MW 4 000 km2
2.3-Nuclear energy requires small amounts of fuel :
A 1 000 MW power station consumes each year:
Traditional nuclear reactor (PWR) ~20 tonnes of fuel per year
Fast breeder reactor (FBR -Superphénix) ~2 tonnes of fuel per year
(less than a cubic meter)
Oil-fired power station ~2,000,000 tonnes per year
(1 Erika tanker each week)
Coal-fired power station ~2,500,000 tonnes
(2 or 3 trainloads per day)
Gas-fired power station 1 pipeline 50 cm in diameter transporting gas at high pressure (~80 atmospheres)
Big nuclear power stations are appropriate for large urban areas, while small power stations would be useful in arid regions, for example. Besides electrical energy they could provide heat for desalination: such small power stations could run for years on a single charge of nuclear fuel.
2.4 - A nuclear power station produces no irritating or polluting gases: (neither sulfur dioxide which produces acid rain nor the nitrogen oxides which irritate the eyes and throat and which also produce photochemical smog, nor greenhouse effect gases (carbon dioxide, methane, sulfur dioxide, etc...), nor dust, with their deleterious effects on health and on the long-term, on the climate.
A 1 000 MW coal-fired power station produces:
6,000,000 tonnes de CO2 per year
44,000 tonnes de SO2 per year )
) part of which can be captured
22,000 tonnes de NOx per year )
320,000 tonnes of ash, containing 400 tonnes of heavy metals as well as radioactive thorium and uranium.
An oil-fired or gas-fired power station will produce somewhat less carbon dioxide, little or no ash but significant amounts of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides. (Oil must be specially refined to remove its sulfur contamination.)
France produces 90% of its electricity in nuclear power stations and by hydroelectric dams, and shares with Sweden and Norway the lowest emission of carbon dioxide per head in Europe. The carbon dioxide which is emitted comes mainly from automobiles and trucks.
Carbon dioxide emissions, per person, per year, tonnes
total for electric generation
France 6.7 0.4
United Kingdom 10 3.0
Germany 12 6.0
Denmark 12 6.0
USA 20 n.a.
The clouds seen coming out of the cooling towers of nuclear power stations or fossil-fueled power stations consist of water vapor (steam) and of course they are not radioactive. Water is used to cool the condensers of the steam turbines which drive the alternators to produce the electricity. The water is absolutely non-polluting.
Throughout the world, nuclear energy produces now 17% of the electricity (30 years ago it was 0%), and we avoid this way the emission of 3 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide gas per year, out of a total of about 40 billion tonnes.
2.5- Nuclear energy produces radioactive waste, but in relatively small quantities.
This aspect of nuclear energy has been much exaggerated by the media and we must put it in its proper perspective. Let us take France as an example: It produces 75% of its electricity by nuclear energy in 58 nuclear reactors. Spent fuel is processed at the COGEMA plant at La Hague and the plutonium thereby recovered (about 1% by weight of the uranium) is recycled and consumed as MOX (mixed oxide fuel - mixed with uranium) to produce more energy.
On the average, France produces about 3 tonnes per person and per year of various waste matter, including about 100 kilogrammes of toxic materials (chemicals, heavy metals, etc.) some of which are NOT degradable (mercury, lead, cadmium, stable chemical compounds, etc.). Of these 100 kilogrammes, 1 kilogramme is nuclear waste, and less than 50 grammes are long-lived (half-life over 30 years) radioactive wastes. So the volume is relatively small. The radioactive wastes are incorporated in concrete blocks or made into glass logs if they are very radioactive, and their volume is much smaller than the volume of toxic industrial wastes, many of which have an even longer life. In fact, many chemical wastes are stable and have an infinite life.
Here we have taken into account the recycling of plutonium as MOX, and of the need to dismantle plants at the end of their useful life. We remark also that the longer the lifetime of a radioactive substance, the weaker is its radioactivity. Thus very long-lived elements such as uranium are not very dangerously radioactive, because they emit very little radiation. (On the other hand, uranium, a heavy metal, is chemically toxic, like lead or mercury.) Furthermore, most very long-lived radioactive waste products (longer than 1000 years) emit alpha particles; but alpha particles can be stopped by a sheet of paper or the skin of your hand. On the other hand, alpha emitters can be quite dangerous if they are inhaled or ingested in very large quantities, because they will continue to irradiate their surroundings if they are not rejected by the body, naturally or by absorption of special chemicals which will coax these compounds out.
Conclusion : We see that the picture of radioactive wastes which "ceaselessly accumulates for future generations and which we don't know what to do with them" is more of an obsessive myth than anything real. In fact, the best way to get rid of "50 grammes per person per year", that is 3000 tonnes per year - say, 1500 cubic meters per year for all of France - a cube whose volume is like that of a house 12 meters on a side - is to bury it at a depth of 600 to 800 meters in a stable geological site, say clay, which is unlikely to leak. But one might also store the concrete blocks and glass logs in isolated storage bunkers until we know better what we want to do with them. There is no hurry. We might well compare those 1500 cubic meters, with the volume of toxic chemicals produced by the same population in a year- perhaps a million cubic meters, that is a cube 100 meters on a side.
Waste material in France
Highly toxic chemical wastes ~2,000,000 tonnes per year Sent to dumps, Category A
Nuclear wastes ~ 60,000 tonnes per year Stored on the surface
of which - long-lived wastes, ~ 3000 tonnes per year Stored underground
as well as long-lived, very
radioactive for about 1000 years,
" alpha "radioactive thereafter ~300 tonnes per year (*)
(*)These long-lived and highly radioactive wastes are temporarily stored at La Hague until a satifactory long-term solution can be found , such as : underground storage or subsurface storage or transmutation. (Law of 30/XII/1991).
The 16 natural reactors discovered at OKLO in Gabon ran for hundreds of thousands of years at a remote geological epoch, about 2 billion years ago. The fission products and plutonium formed there have practically not migrated at all in the clay of the Oklo deposit. This example of a natural analog to the proposed underground storage site demonstrates that there is no need to worry about the degradation of a deep storage scheme provided a suitable site is chosen.
2.6- The danger of irradiation
Radioactivity is measured in becquerels (Bq). The becquerel is an almost infinitely small unit of measure. It is as if one were to measure a macroscopic length, a meter say, in microns or even in nanometers. The human body contains some radioactive elements, notably potassium-40 and carbon-14; this natural radioactivity is about 8000 becquerels. That is about the same as the radioactivity of a one kilogramme block of granite which contains a little uranium and thorium.
One is impressed by being told that a substance is radioactive to the extent of 1000 or even 10,000 Bq per kilogramme. Detectors of radioactivity are very sensitive, just as a microscope permits one to see very minute objects.
The effect of ionizing radiation on the human body is expressed in Sieverts (Sv); but the Sievert is a big unit, so one usually speaks of milliSieverts (msv) or even microSieverts (Ásv).
The ionizing radiation to which the human body is exposed at sea level comes from the earth below our feet, from cosmic rays descending from the heavens above, from medical examinations, from the nuclear industry and from the radioactive fallout of nuclear weapons tests. In France, one is exposed to 1.5 to 3 milliSieverts per year, depending on the nature of the soil where one lives - whether limestone or granite, and depending on the altitude - the higher one goes, the more intense the cosmic radiation. There are spots on earth where the natural radiation emerging from the ground is much greater than this "normal" level. In certain places in the Andes, in Brazil, in Kerala State in India and in northern Iran the natural doses may be as high as 500-1000 milliSieverts per year. The inhabitants of these regions have been the subject of many studies and it appears that they do not exhibit any symptoms due to levels of irradiation almost a thousand times greater than most of us are subjected to.
Average irradiation in Europe : 2 to 10 mSv per year
For an average 2.5 millisieverts/yr :
Natural irradiation due to: The Earth 12 %
Atmospheric radon 37 %
Cosmic radiation (*) 10 %
One's own body 9 %
Artificial irradiation: Medical procedures 29 %
Various industrial sources 2.2 %
Fallout of weapons testing 0.4 %
Air travel 0.3 %
Nuclear power (**) 0.1 %
(*) If one takes a vacation in the mountains, at an altitude of 1000 meters, say, the natural dose of ionizing radiation received might be a few percent higher.
(**) But note that the contribution of industrial nuclear power plants (0.1%) is virtually negligible by comparison with medical procedures - X-rays, CAT-scans and radiotherapy (29%). We readily accept a high degree of medical irradiation because the intention is to improve health and to prolong life. We should have no reservations about irradiation due to nuclear power which is 300 times smaller.
Every one of us is struck by about a billion ionizing particles every day. But our body has developed in this universal environment of ionizing radiation and become accustomed to it. The body recovers from such minor assaults: damaged genes are recognized by the immune system and either repaired or eliminated.
Medical experience shows that no harmful effects are perceived in a subject exposed to less than 100 milliSieverts in one dose (30 to 50 times one year's accumulated background of natural and artificial radiation). Below this practical threshhold harmful effects have never been observed, neither among survivors of the bomb explosions of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, nor among persons medically irradiated.
Even in those naturally radioactive regions where people are irradiated up to 500 milliSieverts per year, one has never seen harmful effects attributable to ionizing radiation, and in certain cases people live longer than their neighbors in less radioactive regions. Comparing this with the "normal" 2 to 3 milliSieverts per year, one readily sees that there is a large margin of security.
On the other hand, increasingly serious effects are observed above the level of 100 milliSieverts delivered in one short dose. A whole body dose of 4 to 5 Sieverts results in the death of 50% of the subjects; in the recent criticality accident at Tokai-Mura in Japan three operators received doses of this order of magnitude. Two have died having received 17 Sieverts and 8 Sieverts, respectively, while the third who received about 4 Sieverts has survived.
The lifetime accumulated dose of natural irradiation is on the average about 150 milliSieverts, but in certain parts of the world it may reach 500 milliSieverts or even more, without visible effect on the population. (S. Jaworowski, Sept. 99, Physics Today). The fallout of the Chernobyl accident caused a very small increase in the irradiation of the world's population. But relatively large doses were received by people living close to the site in Ukraine, in Russia and especially in Belarus. If stable iodine, in the form of tablets of potassium iodide, had been promptly administered to the population at risk, and especially to the children, then the number of cases of thyroid cancer would have been considerably smaller. In fact, about two thousand cases have been identified to-date among children and young people at the time of the accident in 1986, and a few deaths ( less than 10) have occurred. No extra leukaemiae or solid cancer cases above the statistics have been reported, and this has been acknowledged in April 2000 by an official report from the UNSCEAR of the United Nations. This is far from the 15 000 cancer deaths reported from time to time by some media.
Irradiation : health effects on a person
Fatal dose : 8 000 millisievert (8 sv) received in one dose
LD-50 - 50% survival: 4-5 000 millisievert (5 sv) received in one dose
First symptoms appear, with a slight chance of cancer or leukemia in the following 20 years:
more than 100 millisieverts (0.1 sv) received in one dose
No effect on the health, even in the long run and for succeeding generations:
less than 100 millisieverts received in one dose
Some examples of radiation dose :
- Natural radiation 2 - 3 millisievert per year, but up to
500 to 1000 millisieverts per year in some regions
- Medical irradiation 0.5 - 1 millisievert per year, in developed countries
- Impact of the nuclear power industry : 0,02 millisievert per year
Recommended upper limit of the annual dose
for workers in the nuclear industry: 50 millisieverts per year
In accordance with new, stricter rules
this is to be reduced to : 20 millisieverts per year
Recommended upper limit of the annual dose
for the public at large : 5 millisieverts per year
In accordance with new, stricter rules
this is to be reduced to : 1 millisievert per year
Conclusion : The amount of irradiation added by the nuclear power industry is negligible.
Although our senses do not detect radiation (by the way, they do not ordinarily detect poisonous substances either) , the immunity range for living creatures is wide, for example much wider than it is for our resistance to temperature changes.
On the other hand, instruments for measuring ionizing radiation are extremely sensitive . Our recommendation is that they should be widely available to the public at large, so that people may become familiar with the concept.
2.7. A word about plutonium seems appropriate at this time.
Plutonium is a by-product of the fission in any reactor. It is an excellent fissile material itself (hence its use as a nuclear weapon, like the military use of highly enriched uranium). In a reactor, part of the plutonium which is generated " burns " and contributes to the production of energy. In a fast neutron reactor (cf. Superphenix), plutonium use is optimized : it can be burnt at a better rate than in light water reactors which operate with slow neutrons, it is even possible, if one desires, to produce more plutonium from the natural or depleted uranium fed to the reactor, than plutonium is burnt : this is not the " perpetual movement ", however, it is a fantastic step towards sustainability, because it has been demonstrated that with such a reactor, the energy yield per kilogram of natural uranium can be multiplied theoretically by100, at least by 50 or 60 compared with to-days fission energy use. Then, one will say, why not push the fast reactor technology, instead of bringing it to a practical halt today ? This is a good question.
Imagine your car, which can run 500 kilometers on a full tank, being able to cicumscribe the globe with a tankful instead !
The plutonium source can be either that which is extracted by reprocessing from the spent fuel of the existing reactors, so-called " reactor-grade plutonium " or that which comes from the dismantling of nuclear weapons or " weapon-grade plutonium ".
There are in the world about 1000 tonnes of plutonium available today, about 205 from reprocessing, about 250 in nuclear weapons and about 800 still left inside the spent fuel elements. Knowing that 1 gram of plutonium can generate as much energy as 1 tonne of oil, and the use that can be made of that plutonium, it would make sense to use this plutonium to generate around as much energy as 1000 million tonnes of oil, or about 6 billion barrels, or about 10 yearsFrench oil consumption. It would seem rather strange to dump this plutonium as some are advocating, on the grounds of possible proliferation or biological risks due to the plutonium.
It would seem to us, in the contrary, that burning plutonium in a safeguarded and reasonable way is a solution to get rid of the plutonium in a positive way.
On the other hand, plutonium is a poisonous material both chemically and radiologically and it has to be treated as such with precaution (confinement). But it is by far not the most poisonous material on earth as has been said : for example, the botulins from degraded food, or methyl-mercury, are many many times more poisonous and dangerous, and fast acting. It has been said that 1 microgram of plutonium is deadly. This is not true. 1 microgram will generate 2000 becquerels of alpha radioactive particles ; the atmospheric weapons tests have unfortunately spread a few tonnes of plutonium dust over the globe (3-10 tonnes), enough to kill all of us 6 billion people if it were true. Any flower pot contains thousands of plutonium atoms produced by the impact of the cosmic rays on the uranium traces present in any amount of soil.
Plutonium oxide, which is the most common plutonium compound used in industry, is not soluble in water and will be rejected if ingested by accident. Fine oxide dust , if inhaled, can be deleterious : this is the reason of taking great precautions in handling plutonium in tight boxes under negative pressure with a very efficient air filtration, as is done routinely today when making electronic microchips. Experience of some people who have been accidentally exposed to small amounts of plutonium inhalation, seems to indicate that the cancer risk associated with this intake is far from established. What is more dangerous to mankind in the long run : 1 tonne of oil with its problems of extraction, transport, CO2 , NOx, etc or 1 gram of plutonium encased within a fuel element? Think about that question.
(Reference : " Plutonium, ressource or curse ? ", H. Henderickx, Le Hêtre Pourpre, Groupe Esperluète, 66 Rue Pierre du Diable, B-5100 Jambes)
Conclusion : Plutonium is a valuable energetic material which has the property to immensely multiply the yield which can be obtained from the natural uranium resource, by means of fast neutron reactors. The precautions for handling plutonium are those of a number of industrially used chemicals.
2.8- Nuclear accidents
In view of the enormous energy contained in a nuclear reactor, a nuclear accident may have serious consequences if it is not limited by systems of safety and especially if it is not confined by a containment structure. Reactor designers are well aware of this and they have imposed the concept of "defense in depth"; this relies upon several layers of containment and on redundant systems of safety to achieve inherent safety and stability as much as possible and to prevent the spread of radioactive material outside the reactor station, or at least to limit the amount which could escape in case of a major accident.
In the first place, a nuclear reactor is nothing at all like an atomic bomb. (A bomb is especially designed to concentrate the nuclear chain reaction in a very small volume so that enormous amounts of energy can be quickly produced. This leads to the eventual explosion.) An "uncontrolled power excursion" in a nuclear reactor - the worst sort of accident which can occur - results in overheating of the reactor core. When the temperature reaches 1000°C or more in the fuel, the metal components of the core melt and we speak of a "meltdown". The overheated cooling water may be turned into a flash of high pressure steam. And, in a water cooled reactor, hydrogen may be produced which in turn might explode under certain conditions. That's a fair description of what happened at Chernobyl in April 1986; but the power plant did not have an external containment structure and radioactive fission products were dispersed by the explosion in the notorious radioactive cloud.
On the other hand, in the accident at Three Mile Island (USA) in 1979 the core of the reactor melted, but there was relatively less overheating and no flash of high pressure steam due to the reactor desgn, while the concrete containment structure confined almost everything and no radioactive cloud emerged. Although this was a very serious accident, not a single person died, nor was anyone injured or even much irradiated. There were no consequences to the public, in spite of the physical loss of the reactor, thanks to the efficient containment and reactor design.
Chernobyl may well be characterized as a "Soviet accident", rather than a nuclear accident. It was due to the absence of a "safety culture " in the Soviet nuclear industry, both civil and military, which also led to the vast contaminations which were produced elsewhere, notably at Mayak and Cheliabinsk in the Urals. Under normal operating conditions, if the operators had not been asked by their superiors to run their reactor experimentally under completely unstable conditions (about 3% of nominal power) and if they had known that this was deadly dangerous, the Chernobyl accident would have been avoided, even with a reactor design which is less " forgiving " than the so-called " light-water reactors " that we have.
Accidents are of course not totally precluded, but the small number of accidents which have occurred in forty years and in about 10 000 reactor-years of operation demonstrate the high level of safety and the professional training and behavior of the operators. There are today 428 nuclear
power units in the world producing 435 000 000 kiloWatts or 17% of the world's electrical energy.
Criticality accidents have occurred. They are avoidable but possible in plants handling nuclear fuel where a configuration of fissionable material may be created in which a nuclear chain reaction may occur. If the operators are not protected by shielding walls, they will be irradiated. They might even receive lethal doses as occurred recently at Tokai-Mura. But such an accident is not an explosion in the sense of an atomic weapon, because the released energy immediately disperses the critical mass and halts the reaction. The much publicized Tokai-Mura accident showed that there was incompetence in that nuclear plant and lack of control of the supervisory structure of this particular nuclear fuel industry, but it was hardly a world-wide disaster; its effects (two deaths) are akin to those of a work accident in which two imprudent workers paid with their lives for inadequately safe installations, poorly defined procedures and lack of training and supervision.
Conclusion : Any industrial activity is accompanied by risk. Modern nuclear industry makes every effort to reduce risks and their consequences. The risks are indeed much smaller than those of other industries and especially of the transport industry.
Speaking of transport, it must be stressed that the nuclear material transports, especially those of high-level conditioned waste or of plutonium, are especially safe due to the use of extremely shock-resistant containers and other active safety precautions. The safety record there speaks for itself.
An "International Nuclear Event Scale" (INES) has been adopted, in which the danger levels run from 1 to 7. A level 1 event is a simple incident with no effect on-site or off-site. At the other extreme, Chernobyl was a major accident, at level 7. Recent events in Western reactors have not gone beyond level 2. Without being a specialist in the subject, one can use the INES scale to express the seriousness of a given event. This is an helpful tool for media and public as well.
2.9. Proliferation risks
Powerful nuclear weapons can be made, either from highly enriched uranium metal or from "weapon-grade" plutonium metal. Some kilograms are sufficient, but making an "efficient" bomb requires a special know-how and techniques. Coarse, "unefficient" bombs could be made also, but the fissile material quality is not readily obtainable : for uranium, high enrichment (e.g. 97 % or more U-235) is necessary by having recourse to sophisticated enrichment technologies; for plutonium, "weapon-grade" material is obtained in letting the uranium only a short time in a reactor and reprocessing it to retrieve the plutonium : these operations are difficult and necessitate a sophisticated technology. The latest International Atomic Energy Agency's (IAEA) detection methods can detect to a good degree the operations of "rogue" countries preparing fissile material for nuclear weapons. This has been the case of Irak or North Korea, for example.
"Reactor-grade" plutonium as obtained from reprocessed civilian spent fuel is not a "safe" weapon material, as it may explode unvoluntarily during weapon fabrication due to emission of spontaneous neutrons emitted by a higher "isotope" of common Pu-239, the Pu-240 isotope.
Hence the importance of the antiproliferation controls of the IAEA (and of the Euratom procedures for the EU countries) which permanently check the fissile material stocks all along the fuel cycle operations.
Theft of weapon-grade material is theoretically possible, but the five countries of the "London Club" having such weapons have pledged (and have no interest) in having any leaks... Moreover, plutonium-base weapons need a purification from the decay products, once in a few years.
One has mentioned possible acts of terrorism by spreading plutonium powder or fission products over an area to kill or scare people.. Such "weapons" would not be easy at all to prepare. Plutonium compounds are very heavy, like iron fines, and not easy to disperse. These fines would readily get oxidized and would become devoid of important harm. It is easier, indeed, and cheaper unfortunately, to spread toxic gases or viruses than harmful nuclear materials.
Conclusion : proliferation risks cannot be totally eliminated, but means of detection, either directly or indirectly, are sensitive and sophisticated. All civilian nuclear power reactors use fissile materials which cannot be used for making nuclear weapons without an abnormal transformation. The civilian nuclear power industries answer to the IAEA safeguards controls. *
2.10- Economics of nuclear energy and competitivity.
For the reasons cited above, huge investments are required to launch a powerful and sophisticated technology under the best conditions of safety. Once built, a nuclear power reactor may operate for 40 years, (and even for 60 years as acknowledged for some plants in the US by the Safety Authorities), at minimal running cost. Compared to fossil-fueled power stations the cost of nuclear fuel is a very small part of the per kilowatt-hour price of electrical energy.
Being environmentally clean and economically competitive, nuclear energy has been the choice of many countries in Europe and power companies in North America, as well as in Japan, in Korea, in China and in India, these countries, in view of their population and limited natural ressources, having to calculate on long-term plans. Russia foresees.to rely heavily on nuclear energy in the next century, to be able to spare fossile reserves and cope with air pollution.
For example, the Chinese nuclear power station at Daya Bay has produced enough revenue in five years of operation to pay off half its bank loans; and it can run for another 35 or possibly 50 years with small running costs compared to a coal- or gas-fired power station, which would moreover be much more polluting.
Today, all operators of nuclear power stations are pleased to have chosen nuclear, because it is competitive with all other sources of energy, without exception, whether they be coal or gas or oil.
In addition, the price of nuclear energy is stable and independent of the international market in fossil fuel, which is unstable and even subject to manipulation for political purposes. Imported oil or gas can be expensive and the prices are always fluctuating, as can be witnessed nowadays.
Conclusion : Nuclear energy is highly profitable in the long run, but requires a large initial investment.
Today, however, with deregulation, the important front-end investment costs act as a brake to western utilities which can build gas-fired plants at much lower costs, in shorter time, etc.. But, given higher fuel prices, there could be some changes in these policies.
2.11- " External " considerations
Whenever one speaks of the cost of energy, one must take into account "external costs", that is, the costs to society which are not calculated in the day-to-day price paid by the consumer. These include health effects, nuisances of all kinds, the consequences of accidents in the chain of production and distribution, pollution, the greenhouse effect, and others.
* India and Israel have not signed the non-proliferation Treaty.
Many studies have come to the conclusion that the external costs of nuclear energy are lower than those of other forms of energy, even when one includes the cost of handling nuclear waste, of dismantling plants at the end of their useful life, and the risks of serious accidents. The most widely consulted report in this domain is the recent ExternE Study of the European Commission, undertaken in collaboration with the US Department of Energy, which is not especially kindly to nuclear energy.
The results are shown in the following table. For the greenhouse effect, the study has taken an average cost of 15 Euros per tonne of carbon injected into the atmosphere - estimates vary from 10 to 25 Euro per tonne. The contribution to external cost is 2.0 Eurocents per kWh for coal and 0.4 Eurocents per kWh for natural gas.
Total cost of electrical energy production in Eurocents per kWh
Technology Operation, amortization, External Total
and financial costs costs
Coal 5.0 2.0 7.0
Oil 4.5 1.6 6.0
Natural gas 3.5 0.36 3.9
Wind 6.0 0.22 6.2
Hydroelectric 4.5 0.22 4.7
Nuclear 3.5 0.04 3.5
Source: ExternE Study of the European Commission, 1999, cit.Foratom Bull.n°62,1999
Conclusion : Nuclear energy is competitive with all the other forms of energy if you take into account all its external costs but NOT those of its competitors; and it is even more competitive when you assign the large external costs to fossil fuels, costs which have been neglected until now.
2.12- Long-term development and sustainability
When we burn fossil fuels, we are effectively consuming now the solar energy accumulated as plant matter over millions of years and laid down as coal, oil and gas deposits. Readily accessible fossil fuel deposits are quite limited and may be totally consumed in a century or three. Those who care about the future generations for the accumulation of waste should also take this into account :solar energy, which has permitted life on our planet and progressive accumulation of these limited reserves, is however very diffuse and hard to gather and use economically for the production of electrical energy as we know it.
Besides, it would be correct and prudent to conserve oil, gas and coal for their value as raw materials for the chemical synthesis of all kinds of "petrochemical" products, plastics of all sorts so ubiquitous in our civilization.
By the same token, uranium is not a long-term resource either. But:
- Modern reactors of the PWR or BWR type burn only about 1% of the energy potentially available in natural uranium. The Fast Breeder Reactor (FBR) might multiply the yield by a factor of 50 or more, which makes it a very interesting concept from the long-term point of view. (The French experimental FBR, Superphénix, ran at 90% of capacity for a whole year in 1996, but was permanently shut down in 1997 for political reasons.)
- Large quantities of uranium mineral are yet to be discovered, for we have not searched them out as extensively as we have looked for gas and oil.
Conclusion: The energy of nuclear fission (setting aside fusion for the moment) can provide a clean and safe source of energy for hundreds, perhaps even thousands of years.
The impact of nuclear energy on the environment is a great deal less than that of fossil fuels which we shamelessly consume today; this makes nuclear the best energy source for the decades and centuries to come, in a period of transition which we are approaching in which other energies or other ways of living might promote a lasting and long-term development.
Nuclear energy is and will be a factor of political stability in a world where procurement of energy sources may become a factor of conflicts.
3- A quick look at some kinds of NUCLEAR POWER GENERATORS
Without going into great detail, which would require long explanations, we mention here a few kinds of nuclear reactors which might be developed in the next few decades.
Advanced "conventional" light water reactors. The European Pressurized Reactor (EPR) is an example of building upon the foundation of the vast industrial and safety experience of France and Germany. This type of " evolutionary " reactor, providing 1500 MegaWatts and burning plutonium in the form of MOX (mixed oxides of plutonium and uranium), wouild be appropriate for advanced countries where there is a strong demand for electrical energy. The yield can be improved by cogeneration,either by drawing off low-pressure steam for district heating or process purposes, or in the contrary by overheating the primary steam , for example with gas, to get better thermodynamic yields. The EPR is almost immediately available since it is the successor of present-day reactors and the technology for its construction is already at hand.
" Dry " reactors, cooled by helium at high temperature, (HTRs). These reactors would be less powerful, say from 100 to 300 Megawatts. The prototype MGHTR is under study in cooperation between General Atomics (USA), Framatome (France and Germany), Fuji Electric (Japan) and Russian Institutes. Another project is followed by South Africa and BNFL,UK. This reactor is very promising and in particular very "forgiving" of mistakes in its operation. It is efficent, operating at 800°C or more, and its fuel is especially robust which provides for a high combustion rate and hence several years of operation on a single charge. It lends itself poorly to nuclear weapons proliferation, even if fed with fissile material recovered from the dismantling of nuclear weapons. This design is particularly adapted to operation in developing countries, for the desalination of water, for isolated locations, perhaps for the production of hydrogen for electric (fuel cell) vehicles. It might be available in 10 years.
Fast breeder reactors, also called fast neutron reactors, like Superphénix, which can create fissionable plutonium from non fissionable uranium-238 . Fast reactors can help solve the problem of long-lived trans-uranium wastes (called " minor actinides ") by incinerating them along with the plutonium. They are efficient and safe - at least as safe as present-day reactors, perhaps safer. This is the reactor for long-term development. It might be restored to its rightful place of honor and put into operation in 20 years.
Hybrid reactors are sub-critical assemblies in which an exterior supplementary source of neutrons is provided by the spallation of heavy metal target atoms under bombardment by a beam of high energy protons from a nuclear accelerator. This system has certain theoretical advantages of safety and offers the possibility of incinerating long-lived radioactive waste also. The efficiency would be similar to that of present-day reactors. A great deal of development is necessary before one can say whether hybrid reactors would be practical and economic. "Homogeneous" molten salt reactors would seem quite appropriate to this concept. Time horizon : perhaps 30 years.
Fusion. The technical difficulties for practical industrial application are enormous, even though the fusion phenomenon has been demonstrated in research pilot plants. The temperatures required are of the order of millions of degrees, and most metals melt at about a thousand degrees. Present experiments with magnetic confinement of the reacting nuclei are promising, but a fusion reactor station would be much bigger than anything seen to date. Inertial confinement and ignition by multiple laser beams is on the horizon. Perhaps a system of direct conversion into electricity can be developed in order to avoid the cumbersome turbogenerators . Time horizon seems to be of at least 50 years for industrial applications.
So-called " Cold Fusion ". This phenomenon has nothing to do with the above-mentioned nuclear fusion, but may rather be some kind of energy intermediary between chemical energy and nuclear energy as we know them. It seems that the energy of "cold fusion" is 1000 times greater than chemical energy and 1000 times smaller than nuclear energy. But it is currently at the level of earliest observations and even earlier theoretical understanding. Time horizon: impossible to say.
Despite the statements of those who oppose it, nuclear energy is the energy of the 21st century par excellence. It is cleaner, safer, more economical, and more respectful of the environment than any other way of producing the large amounts of energy that our civilization requires. It is important to study the way it can be implemented, to continue to improve its production, to understand its virtues and to better inform the public, in a complete and honest way, so that people may become familiar with the energy which will play an important role in the decades and centuries to come.
We should keep in mind that electricity will be the major vector for energy in the coming decades : todays 30% electricity share in total energy demand will grow to 50% around 2050.
This is where nuclear energy will be most essential and useful.
About the author : Michel Lung is a member of AEPN/EFN , email@example.com,
Fax N° +33(0)1 39 58 69 56
Internet site of AEPN/EFN : <http://www.ecolo.org>