As climate change takes hold, there is growing interest in nuclear power as a zero-carbon source of energy, but also strong opposition.
Nuclear power is among the most controversial of human inventions.
On one hand is the promise of non-polluting energy. One the other are the risk of radiation leaks, hazards of mining uranium, and the high costs of disposing of nuclear waste and decommissioning old power stations.
The added fears that nuclear materials could be used to create weapons create a complex story that is far from black-and-white.
Nuclear power stations generate electricity by forcing the core of a uranium atom to split (nuclear fission). This starts a chain reaction that splits more uranium atoms. Each time an atom is split it releases neutrons that can split even more uranium atoms.
This reaction generates a lot of heat, and a nuclear power station uses this heat to convert water to steam. The steam then drives a turbine that generates electricity in much the same way as in a coal-fired power station.
A major disadvantage is that waste from nuclear power stations remains dangerously radioactive for thousands of years. Some countries plan to bury their stockpiles of radioactive waste deep inside the earth, after first encasing it a glass-like material to prevent radiation from leaking out.
Public concern about the safety of nuclear power grew after major accidents at nuclear power stations in 1979 at Three Mile Island, United States and in 1986 at Chernobyl in the Soviet Union (now Ukraine) (see Case Study).
These events led some countries to ban or never to start nuclear power schemes.
Nuclear technology has improved since those disasters and modern reactors have more effective safety features. While the risk of an accident at a nuclear power station is low, the consequences of an accident could be extremely high.
This, and the fact that aging reactors must be upgraded or decommissioned – both at high cost – to ensure their safety, has led many calls for nuclear power to be abandoned.
At the same time, there is growing acceptance that nuclear power is a clean source of energy that can help mitigate climate change as it produces no greenhouse gas emissions.
In 2007, 14% of the world’s electricity was generated by nuclear power stations operating in 31 countries. About 85% of the world’s installed nuclear capacity is in industrialised nations that are members of the OECD Nuclear Energy Agency.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) expects 10 to 25 new countries to bring their first nuclear power plants on-line by 2030.
But as more countries move to develop nuclear power, there are growing concerns about the risk that nuclear materials could be used to create weapons.
Iran’s efforts to develop a nuclear program are a case in point (see this SciDev.Net editorial). Some commentators, as in this MIT Technology Review article, say sanctions designed to prevent the proliferation of weapons are stopping poorer nations from using nuclear power.
ALTERNATIVES / SOLUTIONS
In 1989, the World Association of Nuclear Operators was created to improve safety at every nuclear power plant in the world.
Nuclear power is indeed becoming safer with enhanced precautions and procedures, better staff training and new systems that are not prone to mechnical or human error.
A theoretically safer alternative to the nuclear fission used today is nuclear fusion, but this technology is still being developed.
To reduce the threat that nuclear materials could be turned into weapons, the US government created the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP), which now has 25 partner countries and even more observers and candidate members.
The GNEP aims to stop nuclear material falling into the wrong hands by closing the cycle between nations that operate nuclear power plants, and those that supply them with enriched uranium fuel and take back spent fuel.
Critics say the scheme will entrench differences between nations according to their technical capabilities.
CASE STUDY – Chernobyl
In 1986 the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, in what is now Ukraine, exploded. This released a huge cloud of radioactive material – many times more than the atomic bombs that the United States dropped on Japan in World War II.
The radioactive material spread over a vast area and was detected in fallout as far away as Ireland. Hundreds of thousands of people were directly exposed to the radiation and the World Health Organization has estimated that the accident caused an additional 4,000 deaths from cancer.
Thousands of people were evacuated from their homes, never to return.
A major source of more information is the International Atomic Energy Agency. This is a global body with 151 member states that promotes peaceful use of atomic energy around the world.
The IAEA advises governments that are thinking of starting an nuclear programme, and conducts safety assessments and training for nuclear engineers and scientists in member states.
The agency’s website has a comprehensive area for journalists, with press releases, free images and publications.
Nuclear power is a controversial topic that arouses heated debate. Journalists who report on this subject need to be aware of the hidden agendas of vested interests.
On one hand, some organisations have made exaggerated claims about the dangers of nuclear power. One the other, those with a financial interest in nuclear power have played down the safety concerns because acting on them would be costly.
The nations and corporations that currently have the know-how may promote it to other countries for economic or political reasons rather than a real commitment to meet the needs of developing countries.
As nuclear power becomes increasingly attractive as a tool in the fight against climate change, there is a growing debate about whether it should be included in the Clean Development Mechanism, under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change’s Kyoto Protocol.
Journalists covering debates about possible nuclear power plants can follow public interest angles by asking about safety issues, including evacuation plans and what stockpiles of antidotes for radiation poisoning exist. Plans for siting nuclear power stations and dealing with the nuclear waste are also important.
When reporting on costs of nuclear power, journalists should look beyond the initial infrastructure costs and consider the necessary payments for upgrades and for decommissioning old power plants. Many nuclear power plants built in the United States in 1970s and 1980s have been abandoned because of high costs.
Other sources of information include World Nuclear News (which also has a free email-based news service).
For advice on reporting on a nuclear accident, see Reporting on Disasters.