From the beginning of the industrial revolution, securing access to affordable energy has been the vital step in securing industrial development goals. In XXI century the pattern has changed slightly, today a progressive human society is concerned more with producing sustainable and affordable energy while at the same time respecting the environment and preserving natural habitat. The need to meet the ever increasing energy demands of growing populations and rising living standards while at the same time protecting the environment has become a primary goal for a growing number of countries.
Today electricity generation contributes approximately 40% of the globes hazardous manmade CO2 emissions. To cut the share of GHG in the atmosphere, active industrial players and emerging markets have made the wise decision to introduce larger amounts of nuclear and renewable energy to their energy mixes as a clean and stable way of generating electricity while mitigating climate change.
Against the background of the Paris agreement agenda, can nuclear energy really be considered as an environmental friendly component of the global energy mix in the fight to reduce CO2 emissions? What about radiation levels and nuclear waste management?
Let’s start with radiation. Radiation is widely known to cause cancer or other adverse health effects, including genetic defects in human beings.
Interestingly, power reactors that are used in Nuclear Power Plants (NPPs), which use uranium as fuel, account for less than one-hundredth of a percent of the average global total radiation exposure. This is due to the advanced design and sophisticated technologies employed in modern NPPs, which emit a negligible amount of radiation and meet all strict requirements of international regulatory bodies.
A joint report published by US based National Cancer Institute and National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements, came to the conclusion that nuclear power plants effectively manage safety to protect the public’s health and safety. Moreover, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, it is safer to work at a nuclear plant than at a fast food restaurant or a grocery store in terms of radiation.
In Russia, one of the global leaders in nuclear power development, there is special radiation monitoring system available to the public online. The system monitors all nuclear facilities in the country and provides real-time results on radiation levels, which are generally far below natural levels.
Respected international experts are in full agreement with the high safety levels of nuclear technologies. John Hutton, the Chairman of the Nuclear Industry Association based in Britain, said that “Modern nuclear technologies have multi-layered safety systems in place that offer a huge improvement on the older power plants…The industry has a strong safety record and there is no reason to believe that this cannot be maintained into the future”.
For his part James Lovelock, Honorary Visiting Fellow at Oxford University Green College, argues that “The radiation from a reactor is tiny: about as much as that from our own bodies. According to the UK’s National Radiation Protection Board, doses from the entire nuclear industry amount to less than one percent of our total exposure. Medical uses such as X-rays account for 14 percent and the remainder is natural. Compared with known cancer risks such as smoking and poor diet the risk from non-medical, man-made radiation is about 1/100th of one percent”.
The successful global track record of operating NPPs clearly shows that nuclear energy is perhaps the most balanced option for conserving the environment — including air, land, water, and wildlife — than any other energy source. It produces no harmful greenhouse gases, successfully isolates its waste from the environment, and requires far less land area to produce the same amount of electricity as other sources.
When considering the idea of nuclear energy, the misconceptions regarding nuclear waste management are perhaps the most deep-seated in the human mind.
In reality, the nuclear industry is the only large-scale energy industry that takes full responsibility for all waste produced.
One should bear in mind that the amount of waste generated by nuclear power is insignificant in comparison to other thermal electricity generation technologies. Nuclear waste is neither particularly hazardous nor hard to manage relative to other toxic industrial wastes, such as that from coal or photovoltaic power elements, which contain deadly toxic elements.
As the prominent South African engineer and energy commentator Andrew Kenny points out, spent nuclear fuel is stored on site at the power plant in a cooling pool for ten years and only then, once 90% of the radiation has dissipated is it moved to special casks on a highly secured site where it is safely stored for years to come.
It is also key to note that since the 1970s, there have been some 7000 shipments of used fuel (over 80,000 tonnes) which have travelled over many millions of kilometers with no property damage or personal injury, no breach in containment, and very low dose rates to the personnel involved.
In a nutshell it can be said that nuclear power plants are the safest energy generating facilities in terms of operation and environmental impact. Multiple layers of physical security, together with high levels of operational performance, protect plant workers, the public and the environment.