At first sight, atomic energy may not seem to be the most eco-friendly choice due to the production of radioactive waste, the ecological cost of extracting uranium, and the potential for catastrophic nuclear accidents. But motivated by climate change, scientists and engineers throughout the globe are attempting to turn nuclear energy into a tool in the battle against carbon emissions. The main question is: Is clean nuclear energy possible?
After four years of scientific research and heated discussion, the European Commission finally gave nuclear power a “green” label on February 2, 2022. The nuclear energy sector may be profoundly affected by the public’s growing appreciation of the role the commission has played in the global effort to combat climate change. This paves the way for “sustainable” private investment in the nuclear industry. An advantage that was previously solely available for renewable energy sources and opens the door to tax breaks. The Commission opted for nuclear power because of one of its many undeniable benefits: the capacity to generate vast volumes of carbon-free power.
However, discussions among academics, NGOs, member states, and lobbyists were heated because of the so-called “DNSH” (Do No Significant Harm) criterion. Does nuclear power substantially affect people and natural ecosystems? The opponents say “yes,” citing concerns about uranium mining‘s potential for environmental damage, worker safety, and the release of radioactive waste. On the other hand, their detractors maintain that there is no perfect energy source since renewables need so many metals and gas releases so much carbon. In the end, the conclusions of the Joint Research Centre (JRC) were authentic.
According to them, there is no scientific evidence to support the idea that nuclear energy is more harmful to health or the environment than renewable energies such as solar energy or wind. In addition to highlighting the need to increase Europe’s energy autonomy, Russia’s war on Ukraine has heightened worries about the security of power facilities. The ultimate goal of nuclear power research is to make nuclear power the safest and most reliable energy source possible.
Managing radioactive waste, a condition for “greening” nuclear power
The safe disposal of radioactive waste is the first step in making nuclear power more environmentally friendly. One estimate puts the yearly U.S. production of radioactive material at 160,000 cubic feet (4,530 cubic meters). On the other hand, this is reported to be 59,000,000 cubic feet (1,670,000 cubic meters) in France. Quite the staggering number, yet one that is deceptive. For starters, unlike the nuclear power business, the medical, military, and research sectors often account for half of this waste in the country.
There are also radioactive products of wildly varying risk and lifespan. High-level fission leftovers are at one extreme of the spectrum and are fatal without proper protection. Despite being the subject of much discussion, their volume often makes up just 0.2% of the whole waste in many countries.
The vast majority of the million cubic meters of this waste (around 60% of the volume) often consists of low-grade, short-lived waste. Typical examples of such materials include plastics, air filters, scrap metal, and the clothes worn by factory workers. The technical difficulties in lowering them widely range among different categories. Thus, for the least harmful materials, scientists are searching for methods targeted at lowering their surface storage volume: burning to collect radioactive particles, melting of metals, etc.
If the radioactivity is low enough, injecting them into a standard industrial recycling circuit considerably decreases their volume. But, rather than technical hurdles, progress is hampered by political and regulatory obstacles in many countries. The “anti-nuclear groups” are delaying plans to build recycling facilities. Furthermore, the waste from nuclear plants is still not allowed to be processed like regular industrial waste in many countries.
The issue, therefore, is more closely linked to so-called high and medium-level, long-lived products from a technical and sociological perspective. They tend to concentrate 90–95% of the radioactivity of the waste. But their volume is rather small; around 50,000 m3 can be generated during the several years of operation, which is less than a fifth of an Amazon warehouse. Quantities like this are small enough to be dealt with easily.
Nuclear waste, in contrast to CO2—which we have no idea how to handle, or plastics—which are created in enormous amounts, and endocrine disruptors, and environmental contamination of all types, is actually regulated within the framework of a well-tested industrial process.
Certain European nations, along with Japan, are nuclear recycling role models. In order to reduce its reliance on imported uranium, France’s Atomic Energy Commission (CEA) prioritizes fuel recycling from the outset, in contrast to the United States. For example, the MOX process, which utilizes nuclear fuel produced from the reprocessing of plutonium, accounts for 10% of the fuel used in French nuclear reactors.
New methods of enriching depleted uranium will allow nations to expand their greener nuclear fuel utilization. But the facilities required for this process are currently only available in Russia.
When it comes to the reprocessing of nuclear waste, some countries are recycling these products at their facilities, while other countries like Finland are deciding to bury the nuclear waste with the energy equivalent of tens of millions of tons of oil in their geological storehouse in the hope that they will one day be recoverable with advanced nuclear reactors.
So-called fast neutron reactors may prove to be a game-changer in the waste management industry. Generation IV nuclear plants like this outperform their predecessors by a large margin. Current techniques produce roughly 10 grams of fissionable material from every 1,000 grams of natural uranium. Due to the high amount of energy still present in the burned fuel, hazardous waste remains.
Almost all of it, including the spent material in storage, could be mined using fast neutron reactors. This method seems to have a number of benefits, including a low environmental impact and the potential for further development (to produce green hydrogen, for example).
Generation IV nuclear reactors
In 1951, the first ever generation IV-like nuclear facility was commissioned in the United States. On the other hand, the generation IV Superphénix nuclear plant in France was abandoned in 1997. Why isn’t this form of nuclear plant being used globally? This is because of geostrategic considerations What we now regard as a benefit—that these reactors do not emit plutonium—was a drawback for governments seeking to increase their nuclear arsenal. Because plutonium is a crucial part of any bomb’s construction.
Global interest in generation IV nuclear plants has recently surged. Perhaps one of the most advanced nations in this area is Russia, which has two working fast neutron reactors and has never halted its research. Startups in China, India, and the United States are also making significant progress. Generation IV nuclear plants demonstrate the viability of industrializing neutron reactors.
Could a quick global switch to a nuclear power plant producing little waste be expected under these circumstances? So far, there is no evidence that generation IV nuclear power can considerably reduce the amount of waste already in existence. Because there will always be some amount of long-lived waste, regardless of the technique used.
As a result, practically every nation that generates nuclear power has begun working on geological disposal programs. But overall, the scientific communities often agree that burial in very stable geological layers is often the best option when it comes to the future management of nuclear waste.
How safe are nuclear power plants?
Along with the waste, the nuclear cloud from Chernobyl is still the largest one still present on the nuclear horizon. It caused global trauma and branded the atom as the number one enemy of certain environmentalists, with a human toll that is hard to estimate but may be counted in the hundreds of dead and long-lived contamination of the environment around the nuclear plant.
Will we have absolute protection from such nuclear disasters in the future with technological advancements? The probability of a comparable incident occurring today is nil. And the evidence comes from the field of physics, not from personal belief. It would take an extremely unlikely sequence of events for a chain reaction to spiral out of control, like in Chernobyl.
On the other hand, the 2011 Japanese disaster at Fukushima was caused by the interruption of electricity to one of the reactors as a result of the tsunami, a less improbable possibility. Without power, it would be unable to circulate the water used to cool the core, which might lead to its eventual melting. The Japanese government subsequently strengthened the emergency systems (disaster-proof backup power generators, fast response teams, etc.) to make the nuclear facilities more resilient to catastrophic events.
Increases in safety standards are being actively pursued by the nuclear industry. Chinese, Russian, American, French, and Korean rivals of generation III nuclear plants were developed with the primary goal of reducing the potential for catastrophic accidents.
Handling a molten nuclear core during a catastrophic accident is still the most difficult issue to solve. There is a collision between the two principles. The American academic establishment investigates ways to improve reactor vessel strength. The reactor vessel at Three Mile Island in 1979 stopped the core from leaking out and thus had no adverse effects on the environment, making it still the third-worst nuclear catastrophe in history after Fukushima.
Spreading the core beneath the reactor vessel is the favored method in France and China because it allows the reactor to cool down without contaminating the groundwater or land. However, the risk associated with a nuclear power plant will always be present. When elements with high energy and radioactive potential are concentrated in one area, the potential for environmental damage increases dramatically. This danger is heightened in states where the government is unstable or where the institutions are collapsing.
After the Russian assault on Europe’s most powerful nuclear power plant in Zaporizhia, Ukraine, on March 4, 2022, this was a remark that rang very true. Reactors like the ones at Zaporijia are built to survive external assault for a few reasons. This includes a bomb or a jet slamming into the power station. The exact effects of a high-intensity assault on a reactor are impossible to predict. However, even the worst-case scenario would not be on par with the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima (August 6, 1945) or the Chernobyl accident.
The miniaturization of nuclear power plants as a solution
Leakage of radioactive elements on par with Fukushima’s would be catastrophic. No matter how substantial the risk is, these incidents have proved that we still have reason to be afraid of nuclear power. Then, could miniaturization be the answer to all these threats?
There is a global trend toward miniaturized nuclear reactors, or Small Modular Reactors (SMRs). This is true, especially in the United States, where several businesses have emerged, including Bill Gates-backed TerraPower.
However, Russia was the first to launch an SMR, with a floating power plant powering the Chukotka region of the Far East in the year 2020. But what potential do smaller reactors have for bringing nuclear electricity down to a more manageable scale? Those who are wary about nuclear power seem to be more open to the idea of using SMRs.
Their primary benefit, however, is that they can be set up in places where other forms of energy infrastructure already exist. Because of this, an SMR can be used in lieu of a dirty coal-fired power plant while the existing infrastructure (such as linkages, turbines, high-voltage lines, etc.) is kept in place. Keeping people healthy and the environment safe is just a side effect of a switch like this.
According to UNSCEAR’s (the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation) research, nuclear power is significantly safer than coal, which is responsible for an estimated 25 premature deaths annually due to its pollutants.
Because it contains so much energy in such a compact package, uranium can replace fossil fuels while leaving considerably less of an environmental imprint and requiring less space for mining. The result is less damage to the local ecosystem.
Nonetheless, nuclear power facilities do not have a completely neutral impact on the environment. When compared to hydrocarbons or the relatively huge amounts of metals needed for renewables, it is true that the extraction needs per unit of energy generated are modest. Natural uranium mining, however, has the same negative effects on the environment as any other mining process.
Their unique characteristics result from the presence of radioactive tailings and radon, a gas that can harm the lungs of miners. The degree to which these disturbances occur is determined by the standards now in place and the diligence with which operating organizations apply them.
Limiting the environmental impact of uranium mines
From a technological standpoint, the widespread use of the “leaching” procedure offers the best chance of lowering them. Rather than excavating tunnels or putting up open-pit mines as in Canada or Niger, this technique involves pouring acid into the rock to dissolve the uranium inside. There is no need to send out miners into danger; all that has to be done is collect the acid that has accumulated on the surface.
Kazakhstan, the world’s most prolific uranium producer (at 40% of the total), relies on leaching to extract its mineral wealth. Also, if done correctly, the procedure may have little impact on both people and the environment. However, it’s not a perfect or universal solution since it needs a deposit to be surrounded by waterproof rocks; otherwise, acid flows might pollute the soil.
Realistically, increasing the output per ounce of uranium is the best approach to reducing the costs associated with mining. Even now, recycling and fast neutron reactors are the most effective methods of doing this. Besides the negative effects of mining, the nuclear sector is also known to use excessive amounts of water for cooling purposes, which may have a significant negative effect on local water supplies. Because most of this water is returned uncontaminated but a few degrees warmer than before, which can have consequences on the aquatic life of rivers.
Locating nuclear plants near the sea offers an easy solution to this problem since the heat will be diluted in a larger amount of water. Nonetheless, certain SMR projects benefit from being able to be cooled by natural convection, without the requirement for a water supply, with a better environmental balance and greater safety.
There are several ongoing studies aimed at making nuclear energy cleaner and safer, such as those using SMR, fast neutrons, recycling, and fusion. However, will the delays in innovation and industrial implementation be consistent with the environmental emergency?
It is less likely that the next several years will be spent trying to figure out how to make a nuclear power plant less harmful to the environment than they will be spent figuring out where the atom belongs on the wide ecological spectrum of energy sources, with all its benefits and drawbacks.
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