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A common future: The efficient and regulated use of nuclear energy

Published in Technology Saturday, 27 September 2014 18:05

- Anant Mishra-

The UN and the nuclear age were both born at the same time during World War II. The destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by atomic weapons brought home the need to address the nuclear issue. The General Assembly established the UN Atomic Energy Commission to deal with the problems raised by the discovery of atomic energy. President Eisenhower’s speech “Atoms for Peace” in 1953 led to the founding of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in 1957.


In the years following the Second World War, the nuclear knowledge that under military control had led to the production of atomic weapons was redeployed for peaceful “energy” purposes by civilian technologists. Several benefits were obvious at the time. It was also realized that no energy source would ever be risk-free.
Intensive international cooperation and a number of negotiated agreements suggested that these dangers could be avoided. The Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), drafted in its final form in 1969, included a promise by signatory governments possessing nuclear weapons and expertise to pursue and undertake nuclear disarmament and also to assist the non-nuclear signatories in developing nuclear power. This treaty was drafted strictly for peaceful purposes only. Other problems, such as radiation risks, reactor safety, and nuclear waste disposal were all acknowledged as very important but, with the right amount of effort, containable.
Civilian Purposes of Nuclear Energy
Nuclear energy should be seen as the most powerful alternative energy source in the world. Since its discovery it was not only used to create weapons but it was mainly used to produce energy.
How does a nuclear plant work? Nuclear power plants use the force within the nucleus of an atom in order to produce electricity. The splitting of uranium atoms is called fission. Fission is used to generate heat for producing steam, which is used by a turbine to generate electricity. In 1942, the first nuclear reactor was built in Chicago, after years of development it successfully produced electricity in 1951. Since then nuclear energy has been on a rise throughout the world. Statistics of the year 2008 show that 13% of the electricity used in the world came from nuclear energy. At present 31 countries are operating 437 commercial nuclear power plants and are responsible for 16 % of the energy produced worldwide. In nine countries nuclear power is responsible for about 40 % of their own energy production. The USA has 104 nuclear power reactors, which provides 19% of the country’s electricity. Currently 56 countries operate about 240 research reactors and 180 reactors supply the power for 150 ships and submarines. The illustration shows the increase of nuclear energy worldwide. Many countries rely on their nuclear power plants, in total there are 16 countries which obtain at least a quarter of their electricity. France depends heavily on nuclear energy, which makes three quarters of their energy production. Sweden, Belgium, Czech Republic, Hungary, Bulgaria, South Korea, Switzerland, Slovenia and Ukraine get one third or more. Japan and Finland get a quarter of their power from nuclear energy. Only one fifth of the USA energy is from nuclear power.
The Growing Understanding of Nuclear Issues
As mentioned in the paragraphs above, nuclear energy is overall more powerful, than other energy sources. However there are certain risks involved with nuclear technology. For instance, nuclear power plants can be targeted by terrorists, environmental degradation, proliferation risk and nuclear waste. Furthermore there is the potential for the spread of nuclear weapons, which is one of the most serious threats to world peace. It is in the interest of all nations to prevent proliferation of nuclear weapons. All nations therefore should contribute to the development of a viable non-proliferation regime. The countries that have nuclear weapons must deliver on their promise to reduce the number and ultimately eliminate nuclear weapons in their arsenals. Countries that do not own nuclear weapons, must cooperate in providing credible assurances that they are not moving towards a nuclear weapon capability.
A separation between military and civilian uses of nuclear energy is essential for all countries. Not all states operate the necessary clear-cut administrative separation of civilian and military access. Cooperation is needed also among suppliers and buyers of civilian nuclear facilities and materials and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), in order to provide credible safeguards against the diversion of civilian reactor programs for military purposes. This is especially true in countries that do not open all their nuclear programs to IAEA inspection. Thus, there still remains a danger of the proliferation of nuclear weapons.
Nuclear Power Plants as Targets
A terrorist attack on a nuclear power plant is one of the worst-case scenarios regarding the risk of nuclear energy. When at war, a countries nuclear power plants often qualify as military targets. The attack of a nuclear power plant would lead to devastating consequences for the civilians and the environment of the area. To date, these horrific scenarios have not occurred. The threat still remains none the less.
Health and Environment Risks
Since 1928, the International Commission on Radiological Protection (ICRP) has issued recommendations on radiation dosage levels. These have been developed for occupationally exposed workers and for the general public. The Nuclear Safety Standards (NUSS) codes of IAEA were developed in 1975 to reduce safety differences among member states.
The risks posed to the environment by the extensive usage of nuclear reactors are the most significant. One relatively important risk results from CO2 emissions from the radioactivity generated by the reactors. Radioactivity wastes are perceived to harm the environmental geographical surroundings by polluting the atmosphere and the natural resources such as, water, soil, trees and subsequently animals and humans.
Nuclear Accidents
In the past 50 years there have been three major accidents with civil nuclear power plants. The first one being the in 1979 at the Three Mile Island Plant in the USA, where the reactor was severely damaged but radiation was contained and there were no adverse health or environmental consequences. A few years later in 1986 the second accident occurred in Chernobyl, Ukraine where the destruction of the reactor by steam explosion and fire killed 31 people and had significant health and environmental consequences. The death toll has since increased to about 985,000 between 1986 and 2004. The most recent, was the Fukushima accident in March 2011, where three old reactors were written off and the effects of loss of cooling due to a huge tsunami were inadequately contained.
The Chernobyl nuclear accident from 1986 is the worst nuclear catastrophe in history. Chernobyl has become a symbol of human failure and of environmental damages and human tragedies. The nuclear incident was the first to be classified as a level 7 event on the International Nuclear Event Scale, until the happenings of Fukushima in 2011. Around eight million people in what are now Ukraine, Belarus and Russia were exposed to radiation. Many thousands of people have contracted thyroid cancer and other diseases, due to the accident at Chernobyl. After the Soviet Union fell in 1990, only four years after the accident, the responsible government acknowledged the need for international assistance. Soon after the United Nation’s got involved and passed the Resolution 45/190 in the General Assembly calling for “international cooperation” to address the consequences at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant and to from the Inter-Agency Task Force. In 2006 at the special commemorative meeting for the 20th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear catastrophe, the strengthening of international cooperation and coordination of efforts to study the consequences of Chernobyl still is an agenda topic at the General Assembly.
On March 11th 2011 the second largest nuclear disaster occurred at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan. A Tsunami hit the plant which led to a complex series of incidents, such as nuclear meltdowns, equipment failures and the release of radioactive materials. The site and the surrounding area were contaminated. In cases of nuclear accidents, the UN founded the Disaster Assessment and Coordination (UNDAC) team, which can be assembled in few hours after the accident occurred. Their main priority is to carry out rapid assessment of needs and to support national authorities and the UN to coordinate international relief on site. The UNDAC team based in Tokyo helped with international offers of aid and information management. The IAEA intensified the cooperation with other international organizations, which helped collect global information on wind direction and where radioactive clouds could be. The Fukushima accident was shortly afterward classified as a level 7 on the International Nuclear Event Scale, the same as Chernobyl. Shortly after the events on the Japanese coastline, a global discussion about nuclear energy and whether its benefits, its risks and the need of nuclear safety strategies are still sustainable. In the past three years the civil use of nuclear power has been discussed and it still remains an issue today.
Nuclear Waste
Nuclear waste is a by product of the processing phase of nuclear fuel and it is radioactive. It also can occur in the core of the reactor, as well as a result of radioactive contamination and uranium mining. Any minor mistake at a nuclear power plant is assumed to generate 20 to 30 tons of high- level nuclear waste every year. Modern day science does not allow the rapid disposal of nuclear waste and remains hazardously radioactive until its natural decay. One particularly lethal component of nuclear waste is Plutonium-239 and it remains radioactive for 24,000 years. As a result of commercial as well as defense plutonium and uranium processing the USA produced over 50,000 tons of radioactive waste. With the commercial use of nuclear energy rising, so does the increased level of nuclear waste. The issue of nuclear waste management still remains and crucial and challenging task to overcome.
Nuclear Proliferation Risks
The development of nuclear technology created a man-made product an element called plutonium, which naturally does not exist. Plutonium is the waste product of nuclear fission. After generating this product, there are two ways to use it. One, to be used as fuel in order to create energy in nuclear power plants and second for the production of nuclear weapons. In the year 2000 about 310 tons of plutonium that could be used for the manufacturing weapons, was produced. Just for comparison, in order to create a bomb that was used in Nagasaki eight kilograms of plutonium is needed. Therefore, 34,000 nuclear weapons could have been manufactured in the year 2000. These shocking numbers show that the production of nuclear energy and the ability to produce nuclear weapons creates a legitimate threat for our global security.

Regulation of Nuclear Energy and Radioactive Waste
Radioactive waste is a common negative side effect of nuclear energy and is characterized in three types. The categories are: exempt waste and very low-level waste, low-level waste, intermediate-level waste and high-level waste.
The least amount of radioactivity is in the exempt waste and very low-level waste (VLLW). It is not hazardous to people or to the environment. It is produced during rehabilitation or dismantling operations on nuclear sites. This radioactive waste is not necessary for nuclear power. The VLLW can also be generated in chemical, steel and food processing due to its natural radioactivity.
The next type of waste is called low-level waste (LLW) and it contains more hazardous levels of radioactivity and is generated from industries and hospitals. It can be found in paper, rags, clothing, tools and filters that contain short-lived radioactivity. Its volume is decreased by compressing or burning it before disposal.
Intermediate-level waste (ILW) contains a relatively large amount of radioactive waste. The ILW requires shielding; shielding refers to the use protective materials which limit the radiation exposure for humans and equipment.
The most dangerous type is called high-level waste (HLW) and is caused by burning uranium fuel within a nuclear reactor. HLW contains high levels of radioactivity, therefore cooling and shielding is necessary. It is the byproduct of nuclear energy and is regulated not only by the IAEA; it’s also regulated by several international institutions.
In order to regulate the use and waste of nuclear energy there are institutions that are formed to confront these topics. An example of such an institution is the Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA), whose sole objective is maintaining directed nuclear energy worldwide. The NEA was established by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and promotes waste management programs among its member states. Developing policies for spent nuclear fuel and safe waste disposal strategies are goals of the OECD.
Another international body discussing the safe use of nuclear energy is the International Commission on Radiological Protection (ICRP). It is an independent registered charity that provides recommendations for protection against all sources of radiation.
These recommendations are evaluated by the IAEA, which then are converted into guidelines and international safety standards for radiological protection.
These international institutions are there to monitor the potential risks of nuclear energy and the effectiveness of their regulations is crucial.
Iran’s nuclear program
The Iranian nuclear power program started in the 1950’s, when the USA helped to launch their first civil nuclear power program in an effort to supply information and research intuitions through the Atoms for Peace program. In 1979 the international support of this nuclear program was withdrawn, because of the Islamic Revolution. Russia and Iran started joint research operations in the 1990’s and Iran continued to develop uranium enriched capabilities throughout the decade. Iran was one of the signatories of the Nuclear Non‐ Proliferation Treaty (NPT) of 1968, which contains the peaceful use of nuclear energy, the disbarment of nuclear weapons and non- proliferation. The IAEA has the right to inspect nuclear facilities of all the signatories of this treaty. Iran has always stated that the nuclear research program only serves peaceful purposes and they appeal on the inalienable right of states to nuclear energy. Much of the international community expressed its concern about Iran’s nuclear program and their capability to produce nuclear weapons. If Iran has nuclear weapons it will affect the stability of the entire Middle East.
In 2006 Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad declared that Iran is a nuclear state after successfully enriching uranium. Iran could have the possibility to produce nuclear weapons. In September 2009 the USA, UK and France have accused Iran of building secret underground facilities in order produce nuclear fuel and weapons. They furthermore state, that Iran has kept its weapon program a secret for many years. In the talks between Iran, the USA and other major powers, Iran agreed to open the new plant for international inspection.
DPRK’s nuclear program
During the Cold War the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) was supplied with tactical missiles from the Soviet Union. Since the 1980s the DPRK is able to produce their own missiles, which could be equipped with nuclear warheads. The concerns of the international community started to grew since the DPRK withdrew from the NPT and their membership of the IAEA in 1993. In order to tame the situation the USA and the DPRK began with bilateral agreements, but unfortunately the relationship between both countries got worse.
The DPRK carried out an underground nuclear test on 12th of February 2013, which they claimed as successful. This nuclear test brought great concern over the international community, especially Japan and the USA. Combining the DPRK’s missile ability, they are fully capable to produce nuclear missiles, which can affect the entire region and pose a threat for the international community. All international efforts to stop the spreading of nuclear weapons and technology to the Korean peninsula have failed. The current situation on Korean peninsula is extremely tense.
Conclusion
Nuclear technology has come a long way since the beginning of the 1940’s. It can produce valuable energy for all, but also absolute destruction as can be seen at the end of World War II in Japan. Nonetheless many countries rely on nuclear energy to fill their energy needs, because it is a sustainable source of energy.
Two major nuclear accidents, Chernobyl in 1986 and Fukushima in 2011 demonstrated to the world the dangers which can occur from nuclear accidents. Chernobyl still is the worst nuclear disaster in history and although mankind has learned from its mistakes, it does not insure that it will not happen again. The demand for power is rapidly rising and nuclear power seems to be an affordable and effective source of electricity. After Fukushima there was a large anti-nuclear energy movement worldwide, demonstrating against the use of nuclear power. Although the international institutions that concern themselves with nuclear safety have passed rules and regulations, does not indicate, that these accidents could reoccur.
A far more concerning part of nuclear technology is nuclear weapons that have a tremendous impact on mankind and the environment. The Cold War might be over, but the use of atomic weapons still remains a common threat.
At the present time, nuclear energy is the most powerful alternative energy source, but we must be aware of its risks and dangers. History has shown us what could happen if nuclear power is abused or mishandled. It is up to us and future generations to insure the regulations set by the concerning committees and organizations are upheld for the safety of the global community.

Last modified on Monday, 29 September 2014 19:03

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