We should never forget that boiling water is what we want nuclear energy (or any other kind) to do. It heats it up and the steam thus generated is then used to drive machinery, just as it did for the inventor Robert Stephenson when he entered his exciting new engine, Rocket, in the Rainhill Trials in England in 1829 (which it won, of course). It did what he expected, allowing his source of heat to generate the steam that facilitated movement along two iron rails, spaced 1,435 millimetres apart at what quickly became known as the ‘standard gauge’. But the width of the track and the sizes employed are a hangover from the width of Britain’s old tramways, used because it saved having to re-tool the workshops involved in manufacture. Anyway, it worked, and it worked because of heat. After all, the railway engine back in those days was more-or-less a kettle on wheels: provide enough heat to make water boil and the resulting steam can be used to achieve mechanical motion.
As the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) wrote on its website in September 2021: “Since 1961, the IAEA Environment Laboratories have advanced and enhanced the use of nuclear applications to inform evidence-based strategies for the sustainable management of the marine environment. The occasion of this 60th anniversary presents an opportunity to recognize the generosity of the Principality of Monaco in hosting them, to take stock of achievements to date, and to consider new opportunities for the IAEA in the future, especially in light of the United Nations Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development (2021-2030).” The occasion for this congratulatory comment was the anniversary of the IAEA opening its facility in the Principality. After all, it’s quite an achievement: talk of nuclear power and of all the world’s administrations, Monaco is not the first to spring to mind. It has, however, done some extremely worthwhile and valuable work since it opened its facility there, and the Monaco Environment Laboratories remain a vital part of the IAEA’s work worldwide.
Most of us accept the generation of energy by nuclear means without asking ourselves how it happens. There are two ways: by nuclear fission – the splitting of an atomic nucleus – or by the more difficult method of getting the nuclei to fuse together, which can also produce energy. Nuclear fission is a reaction where the nucleus of an atom splits into two or more smaller nuclei, while releasing energy. Yet again, we are using the natural behaviour of nuclear material to generate heat.
We’re back to the boiling kettle again, producing heat in much the same way as we do with wood, coal, oil, or gas, in order to heat water and utilise the resulting steam. From 2020 onwards, as in other walks of life, work has been interrupted and made harder by the COVID pandemic that continues to trouble us and by other global political (and military) events. But there were achievements, none-the-less, like welcoming the first one hundred female students from around the world under the new Marie Skłodowska-Curie Fellowship Programme (MSCFP), in an attempt to help close the gender gap in nuclear science and technology. Marie Skłodowska-Curie, you may recall, investigated x-rays and radioactivity and made a lot of discoveries towards the end of the 19th century, including radium, which she successfully isolated. Together with her husband, Pierre, who always acknowledged her lead in the partnership, she published 32 scientific papers in 1902, receiving her doctorate the following year. She was also the first woman to receive the Nobel Prize in Physics, awarded to her and to her husband and their research partner, Henri Becquerel, whose name is still used as a measuring unit of radioactivity. One becquerel is defined as the activity of a quantity of radioactive material in which one nucleus decays per second.
| SMART LADY
Skłodowska-Curie would have appreciated the International Symposium on Naturally Occurring Radioactive Material, held in May 2022 in the Netherlands but organised by the IAEA in Monaco. Other topics examined included the management of land and water “for Climate-Smart Agriculture”, the various applications to which radiation science can be put, protection of those whose work involves handling radioactive materials, the safety of “Evolutionary and Innovative Reactor Designs”, an event held in Vienna but again organised by the IAEA in Monaco. 2022 was a busy year. Despite the extra problems, the year saw considerable progress, such as the Rays of Hope initiative on World Cancer Day (4 February), focusing on increasing the access to cancer care in countries and regions that lack access to radiotherapy facilities.
The actual 60th anniversary was the occasion for speeches by experts and those involved in the work, all of them full of praise for the team working in Monaco. “I pay my highest tribute to the International Atomic Energy Agency,” said Ban Ki-Moon, Secretary General of the United Nations. “The Agency was founded during the darkest days of the Cold War. Since then, it has valiantly fulfilled its mission, first to ensure that advances in science benefit all humankind, and second, to ensure that the destructive potential of nuclear energy remains under effective international control.” That control, based on experience, would seem to be most safely exercised by the IAEA. The work in Monaco helps to ensure world peace. “We have had highly important contributions for international peace, security and development,” said Petteri Taalas, Secretary-General of World Meteorological Organisation, paying his own tribute to the IAEA’s work.
How can anyone square the peaceful and scientific endeavours of the IAEA with the dangerous actions of Russian forces, aiming to take over Ukraine? IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi has been in talks with both Ukraine and Russia, trying to halt the military action that endangers Ukraine’s various nuclear facilities. He met with Russian officials in Moscow just before Christmas to discuss the situation at the Russian-occupied Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine.
Grossi afterwards described his trip to Russia as “another round of necessary discussions” to protect the area around the plant amid reports of Russian shelling in the area. “It’s key that the zone focuses solely on preventing a nuclear accident,” Grossi Tweeted. “I am continuing my efforts towards this goal with the utmost urgency.” He met with Aleksei Likhachev, who is in charge of Rostechnadzor, the Russian government body supervising nuclear energy. Ukraine’s state energy company, Energoatom, later claimed that two employees at the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant had been kidnapped by Russian forces. The company also claims that Russia has placed rocket launchers at the facility, which leaves Ukrainian forces unable to target them without endangering the nuclear plant and the region. Russian troops have occupied the site since March last year.
Grossi is a firm believer in nuclear energy as a means of protecting the world environment, as he made clear at a conference in Washington last October, where he expressed high hopes for using nuclear energy to tackle major challenges “from climate change to sustainable development”, as he joined U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm for the opening of the IAEA International Ministerial Conference on Nuclear Power in the 21st Century.
| HOPE AMONG THE RUINS
Despite all the multifarious global challenges, Grossi said he saw “great hopes” that the world “can realize this imperative of the time: to bring the solutions in terms of prosperity, in terms of growth, in terms of caring for the common house, our planet, through the beneficial uses of nuclear energy,” adding: “That is the challenge.” It certainly is, and with war and verbal threats to use nuclear weapons, it’s a big one. The fact is that nuclear power is the second largest potential source of low carbon electricity after hydroelectric. Grossi has the not inconsiderable support of Bill Gates and US Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm in his efforts to increase the use of nuclear energy through the spread of what are called “small modular reactors” (SMRs) that should allow more countries to move towards using nuclear energy and in that way reduce pollution.
Of course, Russia’s aggressive assault on Ukrainian infrastructure continues, with attacks on nuclear plants and other facilities. Grossi reminded the media that: “It shows the potential nuclear safety and security risks facing all of Ukraine’s nuclear facilities during this terrible war, not just the Zaporizhzhya Nuclear Power Plant. While off-site power is now back at the Khmelnytskyy Nuclear Power Plant, yesterday’s power loss clearly demonstrates that the nuclear safety and security situation in Ukraine can suddenly take a turn for the worse, increasing the risk of a nuclear emergency.” As agreed by Grossi and Ukraine’s Prime Minister, Denys Shmyhal, during a meeting in Paris, the IAEA will press ahead with plans to establish a continued Agency presence at the country’s four nuclear sites. “Our mission at the Zaporizhzhya Nuclear Power Plant has shown the vital importance of the IAEA being there to monitor the situation and give technical advice,” Grossi said afterwards. “Thanks to this presence, the IAEA is providing the world with impartial, technical and factual information about developments on the ground.”
Yet again, the IAEA is offering proof of its indispensability in a dangerous world. Monaco has a lot to offer.