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Fission at a glance

Nuclear fission is the splitting apart of the nucleus of an atom. By carefully controlling this process at an industrial scale, we can harness the large quantities of energy released to generate electricity for the benefit of society as a whole.

In this way, for about two decades, civil nuclear power stations in a number of European countries have been responsible for producing approximately one-third of all the EU's electricity. Importantly, nuclear electricity generation produces very low greenhouse gas emissions, and the raw material - uranium - is mined in geopolitically stable countries such as Australia and Canada. However, there needs to be a continuous effort from all involved in the industry to maintain high levels of safety in the operation of nuclear facilities, and the relatively small but very radioactive quantities of nuclear waste produced must be managed appropriately.

If all currently operating nuclear power plants in Europe were replaced by a representative mix of the other base-load sources of electricity (i.e. mainly coal) then roughly an additional 700 million tonnes of CO2 would be emitted each year - equivalent to that produced by all the private cars in Europe.

Nuclear science and technology has other applications apart from energy production. For example, radiation is used extensively in medical diagnostic and therapeutic practices, such as imaging (e.g. X-rays), cancer radiotherapy or radioactive tracers. Most radioisotopes and radio-pharmaceuticals are produced in small nuclear reactors, which also serve as research facilities.

Fission research

All uses of radioactive materials require appropriate safety measures to protect workers and the public. The operator, i.e. license holder, of a nuclear facility is responsible for ensuring safety under the supervision of the national nuclear safety authority (i.e. regulator). As in all high-tech sectors, research plays an important role in improving and optimising current practices and developing more advanced technology to bring additional benefits for society. In particular, research is essential to maintain a high level of safety in the operation of nuclear facilities, including in the use of radiation in the medical sector, and in the treatment and long-term management of associated radioactive wastes.

The EU-funded programme of research contributes to these efforts. Key thematic areas of interest include safe long-term management of radioactive waste (including disposal as well as technologies to reduce and recycle hazardous material), nuclear installation safety, the design of more efficient and sustainable nuclear reactors, and the risks of low and protracted exposure to ionising radiation. Key cross-cutting areas include research infrastructures and education and training. Most funding is shared cost, with partners in supported projects providing matching financing.

This website deals only with the Euratom Framework Programme activities in 'fission and radiation protection' managed by the EC's Directorate General for Research (DG Research).