Nuclear industry – stagnation or search for new opportunities
Nuclear industry – stagnation or search for new opportunities

The nuclear industry today is in deep stagnation. From 2 to 10 nuclear reactors were built in the world per year over the past two decades, but while at the time of the industry’s heyday, in 1970-1980, before the Chernobyl accident, 20-30 reactors were launched almost annually.

In 2017-2019, 400 reactors were operating in the world – this is 35 fewer reactors than in 2002, when the nuclear industry reached its historic maximum. The share of nuclear energy in the world amounted to 10.5% in 2016-2019, which is 7.1% less than during the peak period for the industry – it was 17.6% in 1996.

Today, in terms of economic indicators, nuclear energy is losing to new renewable energy sources. While the cost of building new nuclear power plants is increasing, including due to the need to ensure higher safety standards, especially after the Fukushima accident, and the cost of wind and solar generation is steadily falling due to the rapid development of new technologies.

In 2016, electricity production at wind farms grew by 16%, on solar – by 30%, and at nuclear – by only 1.4%. In 2016, 62% of new generating capacities in the world were renewable sources; in 2017, this figure approached 70%.

Why can’t nuclear power be considered clean?

Proponents of nuclear energy often say in the media that nuclear energy is “clean” or “environmental” energy because nuclear plants do not emit or hardly emit CO2 and other greenhouse gases.

But this statement does not take into account other pollutants emitted into the air and water environment by nuclear plants during their operation: at the stage of extraction and processing of uranium ore, fabrication of fuel and its transportation. Also, the catastrophic consequences that accidents at nuclear power plants are capable of are not taken into account.

Nuclear plants emit hazardous radionuclides: nuclear power plants emit radionuclides, including tritium, strontium-90, cesium-137, plutonium-239 and dozens of others that have a carcinogenic effect, which means they cause cancer. For this, it is not necessary that an accident occurs – nuclear plants emit these substances in the course of daily work.

Radiation can seem “clean” only because we do not see it, cannot feel it either by touch or by smell. But this does not mean that it does not stand out from nuclear power plants and other facilities of the nuclear industry and does not have a negative effect on human health.

From the very beginning of the “atomic era”, studies have been carried out on the effect of radiation on humans in order to determine acceptable safe radiation doses for nuclear plant personnel and the public. The risk assessment of exposure has only increased over the years. Thus, a report by the National Academy of Sciences of the United States confirmed that there is no safe dose – each exposure to radiation increases the risk of cancer, leads to defects in the birth of a child and several other diseases.

In 2007, the German Childhood Cancer Registry published the results of an epidemiological study of childhood cancer cases linked to nuclear plants. This study, like many others, revealed an increased risk of leukemia in children under 5 years of age, living within 5 km of the zone from the nuclear power plant.

Until 2014, more than 60 epidemiological studies were conducted in the world that studied cases of childhood cancer near nuclear power plants, and most of them, 70%, found elevated incidence of leukemia.

Nowadays, when it is impossible to avoid the effects of natural radiation from the sun and the earth, it is important not to create additional sources of radiation. Moreover, it is not worth promoting and positioning the source of such radiation as “clean” and “safe” energy.

Accidents at nuclear power plants – very often and very seriously

Only one of all power generation technologies can cause accidents that can kill hundreds of thousands of people and produce dangerous by-products that remain toxic for hundreds of thousands of years.

This is nuclear power. A solar station cannot explode due to too much sun. The fall of the wind turbine means that a little less electricity will be produced, but neither the solar station nor the wind turbine will lead to the evacuation of residents from hundreds of square kilometers around.

Serious accidents at nuclear facilities occur once every 11 years – it’s much more often than predicted and promised by representatives of the nuclear industry. Until 2011, there were 11 serious accidents of nuclear reactors with molten nuclear fuel or the destruction of the reactor:

1969 – the Enrico Fermi NPP (USA), the Lucerne NPP (Switzerland), the Saint Laurent NPP (France);

1975 – the Leningrad NPP (USSR);

1977 – the Beloyarsk NPP (USSR), the Bohunice NPP (Czechoslovakia);

1979 – the Three Mile Island NPP (USA);

1986 – the Chernobyl NPP (USSR);

2011 – the Fukushima-1,2,3 at the Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear power plant (Japan).

Another 5 large-scale accidents with the release of radioactivity outside the enterprises occurred at the facilities of the nuclear industrial complex, the most famous of which is the accident at the Mayak complex (USSR) in 1957.

Accidents occurred at all major types of reactors:

  • the Three Mile Island NPP (American PWR reactor);
  • at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant (a Soviet RBMK-type reactor, channel-type uranium-graphite reactor);
  • at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant (an American-designed BWR reactor).

Accidents at nuclear power plants are not only Chernobyl and the Soviet Union, but also the high-tech USA and Japan, France and Switzerland. According to various studies, between 4,000 and 1,000,000 people died as a result of the Chernobyl disaster.

It was the most devastating industrial accident in human history. 33 years later, we did not come close to solving the problems created by this disaster.

Nuclear power also emits CO2

Nuclear power plants emit CO2 not only during their operation, but also at other stages of the life cycle. For example, during their construction, because it involves a huge amount of concrete, metal, fuel and so on.

But most of all CO2 is emitted into the atmosphere during the production of nuclear fuel necessary for the operation of a nuclear power plant, including during the extraction of uranium ore, its grinding, processing, concentration and fabrication of fuel; and further, during its transportation to nuclear power plants and during the safe storage of radioactive waste for millennia.

More than 100 studies have been carried out to calculate the “carbon footprint” of nuclear energy – the amount of CO2 emitted into the atmosphere from electricity production at nuclear power plants. Many of them came to controversial conclusions. In 2008, an analysis of all these studies was performed by Professor Benjamin Sawakul from the University of Virginia. His findings are as follows:

  • nuclear energy emits 6 times more carbon than wind and 2-3 times more than various technologies of solar power;
  • the carbon footprint of renewables is falling because technology is becoming more efficient;
  • the nuclear fuel cycle needed for nuclear power plants pollutes our environment.

Nuclear reactors cannot work without nuclear fuel. Therefore, nuclear power is more like fossil fuels that are extracted from the earth than to renewable sources that generate electricity from wind and sunlight.

Extraction of uranium ore, its processing, enrichment and production of the uranium fuel “briquettes” from gaseous enriched uranium is very carbon-containing and dirty business at each stage of this process.

One of the dirtiest links in this long process is the mining and grinding of uranium ore, which, like coal mining, leaves behind many tailings in the form of waste heaps. This poses a serious threat to miners, local residents and the environment as a whole.

To obtain 1 ton of uranium concentrate, it is necessary to process 1000 tons of uranium ore, while the ore contains 0.1% of uranium. These 999 tons of “tailings” are radioactive and require cleaning, handling and so on. The extraction and enrichment of uranium ore in Ukraine, as well as the production of uranium concentrate, is carried out at a hydrometallurgical plant in the city of Zheltye Vody. Here is what atomists themselves write about this process:

“The so-called “tailings” are generated with a high content of naturally occurring radionuclides in the case of processing uranium ores at the hydrometallurgical plant.

With the help of a slurry pipeline, they are placed in a specially equipped storage facility, the Beam Shcherbakovskaya, which is 5 km from the town of Zheltye Vody. As of the end of 2010, 37.4 million uranium production wastes with a total activity of 3.89 * 1014 Bq were stored in the Beam Scherbakovskaya storage.

After the fuel has worked out its life in the reactor, it turns into 20-30 tons of highly radioactive spent nuclear fuel containing plutonium, radioactive cesium, strontium and iodine. These and other radionuclides make spent fuel thousands of times more dangerous than fresh fuel before loading it into the reactor.

For spent nuclear fuel, a permanent safe storage and isolation from the environment has not yet been invented for as long as it remains dangerous. Existing storage facilities provide only its temporary storage, in particular, centralized storage facilities for spent fuel of Ukrainian nuclear power plants, designed to store fuel in them for 100 years.

Nuclear Energy and Water

The negative environmental impact of nuclear energy is not limited to the release of radioactive materials into the environment. Nuclear energy leads to a significant negative impact on the ecosystems of nearby water bodies and uses a huge amount of water, the deficit of which is growing not only in Ukraine but throughout the world.

Nuclear reactors require large amounts of water to cool and generate electricity. Those stations that have cooling towers take an average of 75 thousand liters of water per minute from rivers, lakes or oceans. Reactors without cooling towers take up to 1.9 million liters per minute and then throw it back into the natural environment. After passing through the cooling system of nuclear power plant reactors, the water returns 5-10 degrees warmer, which negatively affects the ecosystem of the rivers.

Conclusions: In comparison with wind, solar, geothermal energy, nuclear energy does not even come close to the concept of “clean” and “environmental” energy.

Nuclear power emits hazardous radionuclides during normal operation. It also has a tangible “carbon footprint”, significantly higher than that of solar and wind generation. Nuclear plants use a lot of water, while the problem of water supply is becoming increasingly serious due to the global rise in temperature on the planet.

Nuclear power plants require a long and dirty process of fuel production for their work. Nuclear power can kill thousands of people and make hundreds of square kilometers of territories unsuitable for human life. Obviously, nuclear energy cannot be considered “environmental”!