A power-generating unit control panel at Kursk Nuclear Power Plant in Kurchatov, Russia, in 2008 © Wikimedia Commons
From the time Benjamin Franklin discovered electricity in the 1700s with his kite experiment, in which he flew a kite with a metal key attached to it during a thunderstorm, to 1951, when a reactor at an experimental station near Arco, Idaho, in the USA produced the first 100 kW of electricity through atomic fission, nuclear power has become increasingly important on our planet.
The science of atomic radiation, atomic change and nuclear fission was developed as early as the end of the 19th century. At that time, great scientists such as Albert Einstein, Niels Bohr and Ernest Rutherford explored the possibilities of its use. Unfortunately, until 1945, most developments concentrated on the atomic bomb. It was not until 1945, after World War II, that attention shifted to the controlled use of this energy for more peaceful purposes and to generate electricity. Since 1956, the main focus has been on the technological development of reliable nuclear power plants.
In 1953, American President Dwight Eisenhower gave a speech to the United Nations (Atoms for Peace) in which he emphasised the need to develop a more “peaceful” use of nuclear energy. This was followed in 1954 by the Atomic Energy Act, which allowed the official release of the newly discovered American reactor technology and encouraged development by the private sector. The IAEA was then established to address the great fears and expectations that had arisen from the discoveries and diverse applications of nuclear technology. The official Statute of the IAEA was signed and unanimously adopted by 81 states in October 1956.
From its headquarters in Vienna, Austria, this UN agency was mandated to “work with its Member States and numerous partners worldwide to promote safe and peaceful nuclear technologies”. The objectives of the IAEA’s dual mandate – promotion and control of the atom – are set out in Article II of the IAEA Statute. “The IAEA supports its Member States in the use of nuclear science and technology for peaceful purposes and facilitates the transfer of such technology and knowledge in a sustainable manner to Member States”. (Source : www.iaea.org)
In 1954, the Obnisk nuclear power plant in the USSR was the first nuclear power plant in the world to generate electricity for a power grid with an initial capacity of five megawatts. However, the first commercial nuclear power plant in the world to be connected to the national grid was in England (at Windscale, on 27 August 1956).
The US followed suit, but in the early 1970s increasing public hostility to nuclear power on American soil led to the creation of the US Atomic Energy Commission, and later, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to lengthen the licencing process, tighten technical regulations and increase requirements for safety equipment.
Nuclear energy today supplies about 10% of the world’s electricity. To prevent further climate damage, the IAEA is promoting the development of greater amounts of clean and reliable energy. Thirty countries in the world currently operate nuclear power plants, and about the same number of other countries are currently examining nuclear energy as a viable source of power for the near future.
The oil crisis of 1963 had a strong impact on countries such as France and Japan, which had relied more heavily on oil for power generation. This led to a rapid and large investment in the development of nuclear power plants.
Today, Japan and France are among the world’s ten largest producers of nuclear power.
The Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear power plant in Japan is currently the largest nuclear power plant in the world with a production capacity of 7,965 MW. Canada, South Korea, China and Ukraine are also among the largest producers of nuclear power.
Although it is a carbon-free and therefore environmentally friendly source of electricity, some countries have raised strong objections to any nuclear power project due to a number of catastrophic accidents. Austria (1978), Sweden (1980) and Italy (1987) have held referendums against nuclear power or in favour of phasing it out.
AEA experts depart Unit 4 of TEPCO’s Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station on 17 April 2013 as part of a mission to review Japan’s plans to decommission the facility. Photo Credit: Greg Webb / IAEA
Chernobyl is considered the biggest nuclear accident in the history of mankind. It occurred on Saturday, 26 April 1986, in reactor number 4 of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant near the town of Pripyat (now in Ukraine, then in the former USSR). The slow initial emergency response and some questionable political reactions by Soviet leaders only made the situation worse. The emergency measures and later plans to decontaminate the site ultimately affected more than 500,000 people and cost about 18 billion Soviet roubles (about 68 billion USD).
Chernobyl used an RMBK design that lacked some safety features such as a more robust containment building. Over 10 RBMK reactors are still in operation today, but some important changes have been made (e.g. a safer method of enriching uranium or a more efficient control system) to reduce the possibility of a similar accident. As a direct result of the 1986 nuclear accident, the World Association of Nuclear Operators (WANO) was founded to promote safety awareness and professional development among nuclear power plant operators.
However, after an extremely strong earthquake and subsequent tsunami off the coast of Japan on 11 March 2011, three core meltdowns occurred at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant because the emergency cooling system failed due to a lack of power supply. This led to the worst nuclear accident since the Chernobyl disaster in 1986.
After the reactor accident in Fukushima Daiichi, a process of reviewing all nuclear safety regulations and measures was initiated. Germany has approved plans to shut down all its reactors in the near future. The use of nuclear energy as a “green” and better alternative to fossil fuels is controversial in Germany. The Greens have argued for decades that the environmental dangers of nuclear waste disposal far outweigh the benefits.
China, Switzerland, Israel, Malaysia, Thailand, the United Kingdom and the Philippines also reviewed their nuclear power programmes.
With Germany decommissioning eight of its nuclear reactors and Japan’s reactors remaining offline for inspection, nuclear power production saw its sharpest decline ever in 2012. Worldwide, nuclear power plants produced 7 % less than in 2011.
This led to a new, less optimistic estimate of new nuclear power plant capacity to be built by 2035. In August 2015, Japan began reactivating its nuclear reactors after four years of almost no electricity generation from nuclear fission, following the completion of safety improvements.
In 2015, the IAEA stated that “nuclear energy is a critical element in limiting greenhouse gas emissions and the outlook for nuclear energy remains positive in the medium to long term, despite negative impacts in some countries … it remains the second largest source of low-carbon electricity in the world. And the 72 reactors under construction at the start of last year were the most in the last 25 years”.
As of January 2019, China had 45 reactors in operation, 13 under construction and plans to build another 43, making it the world’s largest generator of nuclear power. The US now has 93 operational nuclear reactors in 30 states.
Recently, other alternatives to conventional nuclear power plants have been explored.
The US government announced a $14 million grant this year for an engineering and design study that will form the basis for the use of small modular reactors (SMRs) for a new nuclear power plant in Romania.
The study will be completed in the next few months, following an investment of $28 million, including contributions from Romanian nuclear power company Nuclearelectrica and NuScale, the US company supplying the SMR technology.
This first SMR power plant will also provide important data on construction costs and other important details for the future development of SMR reactors.
Nuclear energy, including small modular reactors, is an important tool in the fight against climate change and can also improve energy security and increase economic prosperity. This is an important step in supporting Romania’s desire to deploy innovative, safe and emission-free nuclear energy in partnership with the United States,” said US Climate Change Envoy John Kerry.
When finally fully implemented, this multi-billion dollar project will prove that advanced nuclear reactor technology is capable of replacing old and polluting power plants while creating new jobs in the region. The project aims to prove that climate change initiatives and sustainable economic growth can go hand in hand to create a cleaner and safer future.
By 2020, 13 EU countries will have conventional nuclear reactors in operation (103 plants in Belgium, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Germany, Spain, France, Hungary, the Netherlands, Romania, Slovenia, Slovakia, Finland and Sweden), but electricity generation from nuclear power has declined by 25.2% between 2006 and 2020 (mainly due to Germany’s policy of shutting down many nuclear power plants).
Of the 172 nuclear reactors in operation in Europe, France has the most in operation (56 units), followed by Russia with 37. In 2021, France led the field with a 69% share of nuclear electricity production, followed by Ukraine (55%), Slovakia (52.3%) and Belgium (50.8%). Meanwhile, Italy is the only country to have permanently decommissioned all functioning nuclear power plants as of 2022, while Germany will phase out the remaining three power plants by the end of the year.
Ukraine has 15 Russian-designed nuclear power plants at four sites, which generate half of the country’s total electricity and of which seven units are currently in operation.
The European Network of Transmission System Operators announced in June that electricity trading between Ukraine and the EU will officially begin on 30 June, allowing Ukraine to generate revenue in the current difficult situation and provide the EU with additional affordable electricity, at a time when prices are rising daily. This is part of another step in the integration of Ukraine’s, but also Moldova’s, energy systems with Europe, and has a special significance now that they have been granted EU candidate status.
The Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in south-eastern Ukraine (built by the former Soviet Union) is the largest nuclear power plant in Europe and among the ten largest in the world. After Russian military attacks began in February, concerns were raised about the safety of Ukraine’s power plants, and in particular its largest power plant.
The nuclear facility was attacked by the Russians and eventually fell into the hands of the invaders. Since then, the Russian forces occupying the power plant have been accused of using it as a shield to shell Ukrainian army positions.
Recently, there have been repeated reports of heavy shelling near the plant. Russian soldiers control the plant, but Ukrainian personnel continue to operate it. Due to the shelling, a reactor unit at Zaporizhzhia was cut off from the power grid, triggering the emergency system and bringing generators online to ensure power supply. A senior official from UN said a nitrogen-oxygen station was also shelled. While firefighters have extinguished the fire, repairs are yet to be investigated and assessed.
It is clear to everyone that a fatal accident with major consequences for the whole of Europe is possible. In the worst case, if the nuclear power plant were bombed, parts of the contaminated walls, the terrain, the cooling water, the stored dangerous fuel elements and the spent fuel would evaporate into the air as dust, which would then be carried by air currents to other parts of the European continent.
After the Chernobyl nuclear accident, for example, the Scandinavian countries and other parts of Europe were affected by radioactive releases from Chernobyl. Caesium and other radioactive isotopes were blown by the wind as far as Sweden and Finland and over other parts of the Northern Hemisphere.
More than 200,000 square kilometres of Europe were contaminated beyond the safe level of caesium. Many countries around Ukraine then distributed iodine tablets to their populations to counteract the possible effects of radioactive contamination on people.
These days, Europe is once again under nuclear terror and many remember with great concern the time of 1986. “The situation at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in Ukraine has deteriorated rapidly and has become very worrying”, the Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Rafael Mariano Grossi, told the UN Security Council on 11 August.
For this reason, the IAEA was in constant contact with both the Ukrainian and Russian authorities to get as accurate a picture as possible of the developing circumstances and to prevent a disaster. The Director General continued : “The preliminary assessment of IAEA experts indicates that there is no immediate threat to nuclear safety as a result of the shelling or other military actions. However, this could change at any time”.
Finally, Mr. Grossi added that “seven indispensable pillars are crucial for nuclear safety, such as the physical integrity of the plant, external power supply, cooling systems and emergency preparedness measures. All of these pillars have been compromised or even completely violated at one point or another during this crisis”.
Even though nuclear energy still seems to be an alternative for a cleaner future, any nuclear disaster would affect the quality of life on our planet for many years to come and irrevocably affect people and places, which is why it should be our common goal to prevent it.
Nuclear energy is a blessing or the road to disaster… we shall see.