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Hazard from nuclear energy: A legend or a reality?

By Spiros Tzelepis

It is time to reconsider our conceptions of nuclear energy

Man is an integral part of nature, and every alteration that causes disorder in the natural balance has an impact on our lives. That is why environmental issues are always the center of discussions and arguments.

Many of these arguments refer to nuclear energy that has been blamed often for causing problems to the environment.

What follows is an effort to answer some of the usually asked questions about nuclear energy based on an interview with Professor Simos Simopoulos of the Nuclear Engineering Faculty of the National Technical University of Athens.

People often wonder if the use of nuclear energy, especially for the production of electric power is safe.

Professor Simopoulos believes that this is a relative issue which depends on many factors. When we are talking about safety, we must have in mind that this is closely related to the "possibility of exposure to danger," he said. From this point of view, nuclear energy is conditionally the safest form of energy if certain specifications are followed strictly. The "key" to safety is the well-crafted "containment" of the nuclear reactor, a procedure which costs about two or three times the cost of the reactor system, according to the professor. This is the feature which differentiates the nuclear power plants of west Europe and America that are equipped with a containment from those of the Eastern World which usually don't. The containment isolates the reactor from the surroundings, and, even in the case of a severe accident, there are no consequences to the environment. Therefore, the safety of a nuclear reactor depends on the way it has been constructed, he said. There are other types of electrical energy plants, which have impact on the environment even during their normal operation. For example, the lignite burning thermos-electric ones release to the environment considerable amounts of fly ash which may contain up to a thousand Bequerels per kilogram of radium (1000 Bq/kg Ra-226)

The spread of nuclear radiation produced by a thermoelectric plant at Megalopolis, Greece.

The effect of another thermoelectric plant in Ptolemais, Greece

We always face with skepticism the construction of new nuclear power plants, with special concern regarding issues such as pollution, safety and cost/benefit factors.

Prof. Simopoulos thinks that there is always an economic criterion, which determines which form of energy will be used each time. Nowadays a few countries continue building nuclear power plants, among which are France, Germany and Japan. Several countries do not select this source of energy production mainly due to the initial cost of such investments. Of course, political and military reasons are also taken into account in such decisions.

The nuclear factories around the world.

In Greece, we often discuss the danger from such plants that are located in the north of Bulgaria. Professor Simopoulos believes that continuous efforts should be put into improving the maintenance and enhancing the safety features of at least the two older units of this plant. This will moderate reasonable fears in Greece arising from this activity.

There also is fear regarding the plant that Turkey is planning to build in the southeastern area of Mesogeios, an area with significant seismic activity.

Prof. Simopoulos makes the point that we cannot criticize something that is not yet a reality. The Canadian type of nuclear reactor (CANDU) under consideration may justify a proper decision, from the safety point of view. Additionally, he repeats, everything depends on the proper "foundation" of the factory. Either the area has high seismicity or it doesn't.

We all have in mind the accident of Chernobyl, and we are wondering about its effect on the Environment in Europe. How dangerous is the nuclear pollution for our health and how many years will it exist in nature?

Prof. Simopoulos informs us that the areas, which were mostly affected by Chernobyl accident, were North Italy, Bavaria and Greece. Scientists expect 50-100 deaths because of cancer during the next 50 years in Greece, attributed to this accident; however, it will not be possible to be distinguished from those attributed to other reasons. The most important pollution factor is Cesium 137, which disappears after 50-100 years, but after the first year, it is constantly thinning.

The effect of Chernobyl accident in Greece

We--the ordinary people--are incredulous on the issue of nuclear waste handling. How can we be sure that the environment is being protected?

Our expert notices that technology to keep waste safe is available to scientists, but we cannot be sure that someone won't steal the waste and use it for terrorism purposes. Therefore, we would rather speak about the "physical protection" of nuclear waste, which is the real problem.

It is frequently said by the various environmental teams that we have to replace the nuclear energy electricity production with some other alternative kind of energy more friendly to the environment.

The professor stresses that scientists are constantly looking for another form of energy friendlier to the environment, but research so far has not been that successful. Using alternative renewable forms of energy, it is practically impossible to produce the amount of energy that we produce from a nuclear plant. Additionally some alternatives cause ecological side effects. Wind generators, for example, scare birds and animals; solar energy collectors cover the ground and not everything under it can grow because of the lack of light and warmth.

What comes as a conclusion from all the above is that man has to be cautious and responsible when dealing with this kind of energy, because even the slightest negligence may cause damage which is irreparable. Great responsibility and observance of all the safety means is the only way for people to eliminate the possibility of an accident. If such an accident happens, there is not time for regret. Last, but not least, it should be emphasized that harder research should be undertaken to enhance the possibility of heavy electricity production out of renewable and/or more ecologically friendly energy sources.

All the material and resources were kindly provided by the Nuclear Engineering Faculty of the National Technical University of Athens.

I would like to thank Professor S.Simopoulos for all his precious help and his two collaborators, Pr Maria Pournari for making the subject easier for me, and Dr E. P. Hinis for his help with the maps.

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