Anyone who writes an article in favor of nuclear energy (here in Italian) knows well that, sooner or later, it will be necessary to go into an examination of past accidents, the primary cause of stiffening and rejection among the population. The mind immediately runs to Chernobyl (1986) or Fukushima (2011). However, some events, even some serious ones, have nothing to do with thermo-nuclear power plants. An example is the Goiânia accident (Brazil, 1987), when a radiotherapy machine containing Cesium 137 was stolen from an abandoned hospital and opened without any precaution, seriously contaminating more than 250 people. It was the most serious nuclear accident since the Chernobyl disaster.
We tend to ignore it, but hospitals, even the Italian ones, keep various radioactive materials. Hard to believe, 40% of nuclear waste destined for the new national repository comes from the medical sector, and that is why even states such as Norway, without nuclear power plants behind them, have storage sites. Despite the controversy, no one would ever dream of closing down nuclear medicine or radiotherapy wards. Global warming is an anthropic phenomenon, yet when it comes to the environment we cannot be as lucid as needed.
Nuclear power is currently the cleanest form of energy production. For many, it may sound like a blasphemy, thanks to the no-vax/TAV/TAP/GMOs/nuclear bombing and so forth, of which the Italian public discussion is a victim. Stil, rivers of ink have already been spent internationally on the fictitious sustainability of the green turn. There is no shortage of authoritative and unflattering investigations that include electric giants and oil companies. The collective moral would see solar panels and wind turbines qualitatively better because they are free from pollution, but this only applies to the energy conversion phase. Production and disposal of infrastructures are completely different matters. Just think that it is expected that a wind turbine will need 1Kg of Yttrium for every MW produced in the short future. Hence, the enormous problem inherent in rare earth minerals and exploitation, both environmental and human, has already seen the deployment of humanitarian organizations of Amnesty International’s caliber.
Greenwashing. Thus is defined the method by which a company or a sector, exploiting an environmentally friendly image that does not correspond to reality, manages to sell more and establish itself on the market.
Then there is the accumulators’ issue. The discontinuous nature of these energy sources makes the excessive use of batteries indispensable to accumulate energy when there is no sun or wind. This energy, however, cannot be stored indefinitely and for an unlimited time, so it risks not being available when there is a greater need. Also counting the so-called capacity factor, more than 40km2 of solar panels and a huge network of infrastructures, obviously subjected to periodic maintenance, would be needed to match a modest-sized nuclear power plant’s annual energy production. In fact, because of the modest quantity produced by a single source, it is necessary to multiply the installations and consequently create infrastructures (cables, power plants, etc.) that are much more complex and expensive, both in economic and environmental terms. Added to this is the very poor quality of the generally used photovoltaic cells, mostly of Chinese manufacture, which rarely exceed 25 years life and are never recycled because of structural and market reasons.
Therefore, despite popular beliefs, there is still no energy production method entirely free of environmental impact. The impact itself must be related to the amount of energy produced. And this is where nuclear power wins by several orders of magnitude.
Burning one ton of oil produces 41.86 GJ of heat, which can also be expressed in the form of 1TOE, tonnes of oil equivalent, a handy unit of measurement for comparative purposes. To produce 1TEP, you need 1.5 tons of coal, 0.9 of methane, 2.2 biomass, and… 0.000014 of uranium or 14 grams. Much of the problems that afflict democracies in this world are due to not being familiar with orders of magnitude. We often confuse millions for billions in economics, medicine, statistics.
I had thought of inserting a graph to visualize better the difference in combustible mass between oil and uranium necessary to produce the same amount of energy. But if I wanted to draw a barely visible bar for nuclear energy, one millimeter high, to represent the fossil fuels one a 70 meters long page would not have been enough.
A handful of heavy uranium as heavy as your smartphone can produce the same energy of a quantity of heavy oil that weighs like a fire truck, filled with a 4000-liter tank of water and 4 operators on board, or two trucks for coal, which is still used today, mainly in the center-south (of Italy) and Sardinia. Thinking in these terms may seem superfluous, but transposing this enormous difference into everyday life allows us to fully appreciate the immeasurable amount of energy that nuclear fission can release. The environmental impact/energy produced ratio consequently decreases exponentially. No other form of energy production, to date, can remotely approach these levels, and therefore a true ecologism necessarily passes through the use of nuclear power.
Around 33.5 billion tons of CO2 are emitted every year globally, and 9% of deaths are attributable to air pollution. For the 2657TWh produced in 2019 through nuclear energy, the amount of CO2 directly emitted is equal to 0. Similarly, the direct emission of particulate matter is also equal to 0. The thick smoke that comes out of the large chimneys, which the movies have accustomed us to look at with suspicion, is composed of water vapor, which never came into contact with any radioactive component. At this point, critics generally dispute that the extraction and enrichment of uranium are not carried out through the use of clean energy. This objection is undoubtedly significant, but it is not clear why there is not the same diligence in pointing out that even the components of “green” sources share the same problem, while not generating even remotely the same quantity of energy, occupying immeasurably larger spaces and not guaranteeing the same continuity and scalability in meeting energy needs.
Renewable energies have proved to be a valuable source in decentralized contexts, but they cannot support an industrialized state’s energy needs. Fossil fuels, on the other hand, are the main culprits of global warming and unhealthy air.
Unfortunately, no energy production method is currently completely free from severe consequences for humans, even fatal ones. Calculating the world mortality rate per energy produced in a very crude way, we go from a maximum of 32.72 deaths per TWh caused by lignite (coal) to 18.43 for oil, up to 2.82 for natural gas, the least determined killer of fossil fuels. Going down -and a lot- we find 0.04 of wind power and 0.02 of hydroelectric and solar. Nuclear energy is at the bottom of the ranking, with a score of 0.07 -257 times lower than oil- including the worst reports on the events of Goiânia, Fukushima, Three Miles Island, and especially Chernobyl.
The use, even partial, of nuclear power is currently the only viable option for sustainable development on an environmental and human level, an ecology that is not ecofascism and forward-looking planning for the future.
Due to choices dictated by emotionality and followership in Italy, the only four active power plants were closed -the one in Caorso after only three years from full operation- and the design of new units was stopped. Lacking an experienced executive class and enough competent technicians, the relative study programs understandably receive few enrollments. To date, the nuclear program’s resumption, even if endorsed by public opinion, would involve enormous costs and uncertain times. However, it could prove advantageous in an environmentalist state willing to draw up the energy program for the next 50 years.
The most common questions and least common answers:
Is radiation dangerous? For cultural reasons, we tend to associate the word “radiation” with something that is automatically deadly or harmful. In reality, saying that radiation is dangerous for health is like saying that sounds are dangerous for hearing. These are waves of different nature, but both pose health risks only at certain frequencies, intensities, distances, and periods of exposure. The electromagnetic spectrum contains several things that can be defined with the term “radiation” and extend from radio waves to gamma rays, passing through the visible spectrum, or those frequencies at which human eye receptors can be stimulated. Outside the visible spectrum, which makes up the colors of white light, we find on the one hand infrared (to which the receptors of cats continue to respond) and on the other hand ultraviolet (to which the receptors of arctic reindeer are sensitive). The high part of the ultraviolet is already among the so-called ionizing radiations, that is, those capable of modifying the structure of molecules, including DNA, causing damage to tissues. This category also includes non-electromagnetic radiations: alpha, beta particles, and neutrons (gamma radiations are instead electromagnetic). This is the reason why, when we are exposed to the sun, the cells of the epidermis secrete an umbrella of melanin around the nucleus (in which the DNA is enclosed) to shield it, giving rise to tanning. The vast majority of DNA modifications are repaired or do not involve risks. However, sometimes mutations occur that cause uncontrolled cell proliferation. This is the case with melanoma. We weigh the risks with the benefits daily, and no one would dream of banning sun exposure indiscriminately to prevent damage from UV rays. Therefore, it would be desirable for the term “radiation” to be used more seriously by the press, untying it from the sensationalist use and implicitly catastrophic meaning that has distinguished it. Every year we absorb about 3mSv of radiation, coming both from the radioactive isotopes contained in the earth’s crust and from cosmic rays, which together make up the natural radioactivity background. However, this value varies greatly from place to place. For example, in the Iranian city of Ramsar, on the Caspian Sea, an average of 10.2mSv / year can be reached, with peaks of 260mSv / year in the thermal water springs where the Shah of Persia submerged for generations.
Is waste a problem? The spent fuel is 95% recyclable in Generation IV nuclear reactors. What is not reused to produce energy through secondary methods remains there, sealed, and properly controlled in appropriate storage sites. Nothing happens, absolutely nothing. After collecting data for decades, it has been repeatedly demonstrated that there is no risk to human health or the surrounding ecosystem. Many scientific personalities from different backgrounds have repeatedly claimed this concept over time. It is really incomprehensible the hostility of many Italian municipalities that should instead compete to accept nuclear waste given the economic benefits of 15 million euros per year. It has even been shown how living next to an active nuclear power plant has no contraindications, does not shorten life, does not increase the incidence of any pathology, unlike living in the Po Valley, an area with the worst air quality in Europe, where every year it is estimated that about 4000 people die prematurely due to the fine particles produced by combustion and hundreds of thousands suffer from related diseases, more or less serious.
Isn’t there a risk that waste will accumulate excessively? No, because the totality of HLW (High-level radioactive waste) ever produced in the world since the first use of nuclear power in the civil sector in 1954 to date is only 370 thousand tons, equal to the weight of the Empire State Building. It may seem like a lot, but it is not at all if we think that the building is largely empty (occupied by air) and composed of materials with a density much lower than that of spent fuel. It is also a trifle compared to the 2657 TWh (106 MWh, 109 KWh) of energy generated in 2019 alone by nuclear power plants. A third of this waste is also reprocessed, generating additional energy more efficiently thanks to technological progress.
Is there a risk of terrorist attacks? Observing the statistics, no, because a bomb detonated near a nuclear reactor could not trigger a nuclear explosion, which occurs with totally different dynamics from those with which the reactor works. However, there is the risk that radioactive material will be dispersed into the environment following an attack, which is why nuclear power plants are carefully monitored by specialized personnel, obscured by online maps, and periodically subjected to strict controls by the IAEA, the organ UN deputy. The same cannot be said of other sites, such as those for fossil fuel extraction. The only recorded terrorist attack was carried out in France in 1982 by groups of self-styled environmentalists who, armed with RPGs, fired five rockets at the Superphénix nuclear power plant’s main structure construction. It had no consequence. In 2003 Chaïm Nissim, elected with the Green Party in Switzerland, admitted his responsibility in the attack, claiming that he had obtained weapons from the Belgian Communist cells Red Army Faction and Cellules Communistes Combattantes. There were no consequences for him either.
Is there a risk of environmental disasters? The biggest environmental disaster ever is Deepwater Horizon (2010), where an explosion on the same-named oil platform caused crude to spill into the sea for 87 consecutive days. Added to this are those caused by the super-tankers Prestige (2002) and Exxon Valdez (1989), in addition to the countless dispersions of industrial chemical compounds that occur each year in both water and air. Chernobyl is also to be counted among these disasters. Still, among the causes, we find the inadequacy of the RBMK reactors, the lack of competence of the staff on duty, and the attempt to cover up the accident carried out by the Soviet government, which for days denied the incident, slowed down evacuation of citizens and opposed international cooperation. Thirty-one people, plant workers, and firefighters were exposed in a few minutes to doses above 700mSv when the annual limit set by the WHO is 100mSv; they died as a result of acute radiation syndrome. Within a radius of 30km from the plant, adults were hit by a dose ranging from 5mSv to 150mSv. Liquidators operated on the roof of reactor 3 (around 2000) received an average dose of 165mSv in one year. A person residing in northern Italy at the time of the accident received a radiation dose equal to 1mSv, the equivalent of an x-ray of the abdomen, which was added to the 3mSv per year we are naturally exposed on average. An abdominal CT scan corresponds to approximately 8mSv. Radiotherapy can reach higher values for several orders of magnitude, even tens of Sv (1Sv = 1000mSv), but focused specifically on the tumor. The UN has estimated that about 50 deaths may be directly linked to the Chernobyl accident and that about 4000 deaths may have already occurred or occur in the next few years. However, it remains difficult to establish a direct correlation given the advanced age of many involved. Currently, after removing some areas of a few tens of square meters where the liquidators illegally buried the debris, the radioactivity is low, to the point that the Pripyat area has become a sanctuary of biodiversity, preserving a vast proliferation of flora and fauna. We always continue to associate the word radioactivity with certain death or with an increased probability of death for cultural reasons. This is simply a falsehood dictated by emotionality and ignorance. Within certain limits, however fairly high, there is no evidence that the relative risk to health increases.
What about Fukushima? It is necessary to be resolute in evaluating the tragedy, however difficult it may be. On 11 March 2011, a magnitude 9 earthquake occurred in the Tōhoku region, the fourth strongest ever recorded in the world. The country, which boasts a solid anti-seismic culture, reacted well to the violent shock, but this was followed by the tsunami that hit the coasts with waves up to 40m high. According to the most recent estimates, it was an apocalyptic event that caused 20,541 victims, to be precise 15,894 dead and 4,647 missing. To have a yardstick, Hurricane Katrina caused 1,833 victims. Of the 300,000 people evacuated, about 1,600, mostly older adults, died due to the stress they were subjected to. The safety systems of the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant deactivated the reactors to prevent possible damage. Still, the unprecedented tsunami hit the plant with waves more than 15 meters high, bypassing the specially prepared barriers, causing problems for the core cooling system. of 3 of the 6 reactors present and causing a meltdown with the release of radioactive iodine, cesium, and cobalt into the environment, mainly dispersed in ocean water. In the prefecture of Fukushima, during the first 4 months, 99.3% of the 386,572 cases analyzed had absorbed a radiation dose lower than 3mSv, far lower than the maximum annual dose of 20mSv, which is, for example, prudentially set by the Italian government for professions exposed to radiation, such as hospital technicians. Moreover, this is the average maximum dose in 5 years of exposure, as the limit for the single annuity can reach 50mSv, as is the case in many states. Despite the catastrophic first impressions rebounded in the media -especially Italian ones- to date, we know that the health risks related to the event have been greatly reduced. The number of deaths directly attributable to radiation is equal to 0. For the record, a controversial case of cancer arising after the accident should be reported, the subject of a private economic agreement between the parties, in reality not directly attributable to radiation. The WHO has not noticed increases in the number of abortions or physical and mental disorders in children born even years after the accident. The increase in minors’ thyroid pathologies is instead difficult to contextualize: despite a possible increase due to radiation, it could still be largely caused by the massive screening campaign implemented in the following years, which, as often happens in medicine, acted as a confounding factor. After the event, the pressure of public opinion, already marked by two atomic bombs, forced the suspension of all 54 nuclear reactors in Japan, which produced 30% of the country’s energy. A study published by Columbia University concluded that the deaths caused by the oil-fired thermoelectric plants’ activity that made up for the nuclear shutdown are many more than those potentially resulting from the accident itself. In November 2011, to demonstrate the effectiveness of the decontamination plants, parliamentarian Yasuhiro Sonoda drank live a glass of water from reactors 5 and 6 of the Fukushima plant. Today Sonoda is still in excellent health, despite having been passed off as dead, countless times, while Japan is progressively reactivating its reactors according to a slow and constant process, which has to deal with the conflicting emotions of its citizens.
How it’s going in the rest of the world? There are currently about 440 nuclear reactors that meet 10% of the world’s electricity demand. Another 55 are under construction and 109 in the planning phase. The heat produced by a nuclear power plant is also in great demand by certain types of companies and can be used at lower temperatures for civilian homes. Then there is the production of hydrogen for the transport sector and the desalination of water, which is increasingly important in the planet’s areas exposed to desertification processes. Nuclear power is currently excluded from European green bonds. Still, the reference text’s final promulgation is scheduled for 2023, and the motion that would have permanently excluded nuclear energy was rejected. The discussion remains open, and public awareness-raising is fundamental.
And in Italy? We produce more than a third of electricity from renewable sources, but the main method remains hydroelectricity. Not exempt from a huge environmental impact -and from tragedies such as that of Vajont, about 2,000 dead- also affected by the plants’ age, many of which are now over 70 years old. However, we continue to import more than 10% of electricity from neighboring states, especially from France, which produces 72.3% with nuclear fission, and from Switzerland, 38% nuclear. The French plant of Bugey is just over 100Km from the Italian border, the Swiss one of Lucens 88Km. Gas imports, equal to 95% of national needs, reached 70.9 billion cubic meters in 2019 (+ 4.5% in 2018), confirming that we are very far from energy independence and forcing us to maintain relations of convenience with authoritarian regimes and democracies. We have spent huge amounts of money on the hasty dismantling of the 4 active Italian nuclear power plants. For the Caorso plant alone, which remained operational for only 3 years, 450 million euros were needed and a further 300 million euros for the reprocessing of the fissile fuel.
Extra, nuclear power is also used with excellent results in naval propulsion. One of the first installations was on icebreakers, which need a lot of energy to get on the pack and break it with their own weight. Today, it is widely used in large military ships, such as the 10 US Nimitz class aircraft carriers and submarines.
Thanks to Luca Romano -theoretical physicist, master in scientific journalism- and Fulvio Buzzi -energy engineer, a doctoral student in mechanical engineering- who manage the science dissemination format, l’Avvocato dellAtomo (the Atom’s Layer), for their collaboration and review.