NucLIAR Society? A study on nuclear energy and its relation with people

By Clément Maire, Alexis Brault, Antoine Granier, Brice Parmentier, Jean Reinwarth – Fall 2017

 

According to the last forecasts of the UN, by 2050 the world’s population will have increased by a third. Meanwhile the energy consumption per person is rising dramatically. According to the International Energy Agency, while the energy consumption per year in the world in 2000 was of 9.2 billion tonnes of oil equivalent (toe), in 2030, previsions forecast a number of 15.3 billion toe. In addition, global warming concerns and protecting the environment have become essential. It is necessary to have better or new ways of producing energy to avoid soil depletion, CO2 emission… In a context of ecological transition, energy is one of the major stakes of our century, of our generation, and takes place at the heart of the public debate. One way of producing low carbon energy (electricity) is the nuclear industry. In some countries, nuclear electricity is at the heart of energy production. For example, in France, it represents between 70 and 75 % of the electricity production. It allows to guarantee energetic independence. But it is also a controversial way of producing energy and many protest against its use. Based on a survey [1], this article focus on different questions or ideas that people have on the nuclear energy. It tries to help people making an objective opinion and avoiding misunderstandings by bringing facts about nuclear energy. For that, the article focuses in our first part on questions and misunderstandings from the population about nuclear energy and in our second part on the opinion of local elected representatives.

 

First of all, considering the nuclear disasters since Chernobyl, 53% of the asked people think that nuclear safety is not really sufficient and so it must be improved. 45% of them think that it is well but it could be better, so only 2% think that the safety is as good as it can be. But most of them (78%) do not know any independent institutions that can control and improve nuclear safety. If people think that it is the operator who guarantees the safety, that could explain why people fear the possibility of a new disaster, caused by a human disregard. The most famous agency of nuclear energy is the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency), whose aim is to manage all of the issues of nuclear energy around the world. Actually it is a NGO, and it gathers all of the research results which could improve safety, but also the kinds of developments for this energy. It communicates with all of the safety agencies from the different countries. For example, in France this institution is called Autorité de Sûreté Nucléaire (the nuclear safety authority), which is so-called independent because even if the chairman is named by the French president, he must be approved by the French parliament. So the ASN gets the standards of nuclear safety from the IAEA (so all of the scientific results about safety), and it is the authority which rules all of the (pacific) nuclear buildings and operations. When a company produces a new plan to launch a nuclear power plant, it must also do a work (reports, visits, certifications etc…) to convince the ASN that its work is safe enough, according to the standards.

 

Another main contradiction shown by the survey was about nuclear waste generated during the operation of a nuclear power plant, which is also the most controversial topic regarding this type of energy. Indeed, while a majority of respondents identified radioactive waste as the main problem of nuclear electricity generation, almost 50% thought that the most dangerous products will be active for less than 500 years. On such a short time scale, this would not present a major storage problem. The problem lies in the fact that some elements can emit low radioactivity for several millions of years.

 

Another astonishing part concerned the discharges and pollution emitted by a nuclear power station. Indeed, 20% of respondents believe that smoke rising from towers contained CO2, and 23% said that nuclear was the main emitter of greenhouse gases (against 47.5% for coal). In a power plant, the fuel, inserted in zirconium cladding, is cooled directly by the water of the primary circuit, which then transfers its energy by evaporating water from the secondary circuit. These two circuits, which are in a closed cycle, do not show any loss during normal use. Only the water of the cooling circuit, which allows to cool the secondary, is evacuated in the river or in the air. Thus, the evacuated water is identical to that which is drawn from the river or the sea. The smoke escaping from the towers therefore contains only water vapour. Similarly, the water discharged downstream of the plant only has a slightly higher temperature due to cooling, but contains no radioactive element or additional product. With regard to carbon emissions, the Carbon Base established by the ADEME (Agency for the Environment and Energy Management) calculated CO2 emissions from a nuclear power plant at 6 gCO2 / kWh against 55 gCO2 / kWh for photovoltaic energy and more than 1000 gCO2 / kWh for coal.

 

An issue often noticed in the public debate is that nuclear power plants are spreading radioactive elements by dumping the water cooling the fuel in the river. According to Greenpeace, some activities reaching the 100 Bq/liter (ie 100 Bq/kg), are often measured. If we consider that this limit is respected in the power plant’s process, we should explain in what extend this value could be dangerous for people’s health. First of all, the unit Bq (Becquerel) is not appropriate to evaluate the danger of one object, the Sievert was created for that. (cf. http://www.laradioactivite.com). But actually, even if it is considered, it must be compared with the natural radioactivity (i.e. of the other objects of the common day’s life).

 

We can see on this graphic some examples of food which emit many times higher radioactivity than 100 Bq/kg. Plus, we Figure 1/ Activites of everyday food, from laradioactivite.com should consider that this density will be diluted more and more when the water progresses along the river.

 

With the issues raised by the energy transition, it seems important and legitimate to look into the feedback from local representatives.

Even if the state policy coordinates efforts in the direction given by the European authorities, local power structures
such as counties and town have to deal with their own energy needs. The main questions that are raised are about distribution and energy savings, including public lighting. There is a willingness to focus on renewable energies, to decrease the portion of nuclear energy to 50% in France. Thus, local projects are lead such as the construction of hydraulic micro-power plants when the regional terrain allows it, or promotion to encourage people to install photovoltaic panels. Although people are sensitive to the improvement of installation of renewable energies, part of them refuse installations near them mainly because of visual pollution or other concerns. Many agree with the need for an energy transition and the need to change energy consumption, but it appears that the population holds to its comfort. The representatives have to deal with the evolution of people’s states of mind, yet in a dynamic of transition.

 

The second part of what comes out of the interviewed representatives is that, in a global view, people are not informed enough about nuclear energy. If nuclear plants are durably installed, they question each other about safety, nuclear waste, emissions or radioactivity. Most of them know about energy independence brought by nuclear energy as a political issue. However, some false accusations are conveyed by some groups, associations or lobbies. As explained above, the radioactive release is scrupulously studied and minimized. The smoke of nuclear plants is only water and the water of the rivers used for cooling is not polluted by this activity.

 

To put it in a nutshell, with 47.6 % of the people we surveyed thinking nuclear energy is not the way to go and 67.2 % thinking it is dangerous for Mankind, it is obvious that nuclear energy is a controversial topic. Although people’s concerns are real, some discrepancies in the way they perceive nuclear energy caught our attention. These paradoxes are interesting and do not make people’s questions and thoughts irrelevant. On the contrary, they demonstrate that there is still a lot of work to do to improve access to information in the nuclear field but it is also a good indicator that people are not really interested in knowing more about the atom. It implies that the only things they know necessarily come from media or from organisations that are by essence subjective. One reason for this lack of interest might be that people are fine with what nuclear electricity provides, especially economically, and though they have concerns, they do not want to dig into it too deeply because alternatives (like windmills) do not suit their visual or financial comfort. In the next few decades, the energetic landscape is going to change for sure given the future needs and the implementations of ecological plans (Paris agreement), the question is now to know how to make people interested in these issues. Not only would it help them make their own opinions, but it might as well allow new ideas and talents to emerge.

 

[1] Survey given to 61 people from France (60%) and the rest of the world (40%) from 19 to 57

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