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Nuclear energy: between aversion and affection

The main problems that nuclear technology is facing today are politics and the public acceptance. Nuclear power has a bad public image, though it is the only energy source presently capable of producing electricity (and even heat) stably and without greenhouse gases emissions. From a technological point of view, nuclear fuel has many advantages in comparison with coal, fuel oil or gas, which emit during combustion huge amounts of greenhouse and toxic gases. The NPP safety systems are more reliable than similar systems of other industrial installations. Therefore, there is the need to defeat a false perception of the risks, skillfully played on by different groups, which suggest that the large scale development of the youngest and most powerful source of energy in our hands (i.e., nuclear) is not beneficial.

In Europe, for example, several countries are engulfed in compromise policies with environmental groups that favor de facto the exploitation of fossil fuels for a longer time than needed, while waiting for efficient and reliable renewable sources to be available. Aversion towards nuclear power occurs due to a combination of lack of knowledge and underestimation of the need for a longsighted energy strategy. This has many similarities with the aversion towards vaccination, which is putting at risk public health in western countries As a well-known immunologist has recently said, “science is not democratic”: let me add a bitter-sweet version of this sentence by saying that the value of the number Pi, unfortunately, cannot be decided by a poll. On the other hand, in Russia and in growing economies, the advantages of nuclear energy are presently more actively exploited, seemingly owing to a better perception of its benefits with respect to risks at a political level and to a greater decisional capability.

I really hope that the European public opinion will come to terms with technology in general, too often perceived as deleterious, by a proper educational action to be carried on in cooperation by different countries. There is no doubt that nuclear technologies are developing all over the world exploiting the best of what has been already produced in the field. I see exactly in this the need and the opportunity for close international cooperation, considering that Europe, the United States, Russia and several countries around the world are nearing 15,000 cumulative reactor-years of operating experience in the nuclear field.

Talking about the future of nuclear energy, we mainly refer to the future of fission reactors, namely the reactors of Generation IV. Undoubtedly, the closure of the fuel cycle and the use of fast neutron reactors can turn the available uranium and thorium resources into very long-lasting reserves. This is the old dream of alchemists, which has been already envisaged by many scientists and researchers. In this regard, it is also appropriate to recall the programs for the development of thermonuclear fusion, including the international ITER project. These programs represent the future of nuclear technology as well, but so far we do not know how close this future may be.

In the short term, we need anyway fighting climate change and ensuring sustainable energy for the world's growing population. Scenarios foreseen for 2050 are diverse; while it is easy to imagine any of them, their implementation requires mainly to overcome political difficulties that can unjustifiably oppose to nuclear energy. Unfortunately, I see much more influence of politics in this process than of science and technology. The energy landscape of the future will be obviously decided by politicians: I just hope they will listen to those who have enough knowledge and expertise to properly advise them.

 

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