Frequently Asked Questions
1. Why is public money spent on nuclear fission research?
The nuclear industry is a profitable industrial sector and like other industrial sectors invests in R&D to remain competitive. However, this does not mean there should be no public funding for research in the general area of nuclear science and technology. Such funding is necessary and can be justified in a number of cases: (i) where there is clear public concern and the public money goes on research in support of regulatory or control functions; (ii) where the public sector can help maintain European competitiveness by ensuring standardisation and harmonisation across the industry; (iii) where basic research, far from commercialisation, is involved and industry does not yet see possible benefits; (iv) where the commercial risk is too great for industry to support the R&D costs alone but the possible societal benefits are significant. This final category includes the research on next generation nuclear reactors, since these systems will not be deployed commercially before 2040 at the earliest. The commercial risk over such time spans is considerable, especially in a sector so sensitive to shifts in policy and national strategy, and therefore support from the public sector is essential. It is widely recognised that massive investments in research are needed now in all low-carbon energy technologies, including advanced reactors, if we are to meet our ambitious CO2 reduction targets and establish a true low carbon society by the middle of this century, and a large part of this must come from the public purse. Back to top
2. Is geological disposal safe?
With nuclear waste the risks are that radiation will leak from the disposal facility and result in unacceptable exposure to humans. To understand better the concept of geological disposal there are two fundamental issues to grasp. Firstly, thanks to radioactive decay, the hazard posed by the waste diminishes over time, albeit in extremely large time scales. Secondly, predicting what will happen to waste in a geological repository becomes more difficult the further we look into the future. Time is therefore both friend and foe, and geological disposal facilities are designed to maximise the chances for the radioactive waste to decay safely and at the same time to minimise the uncertainty about how the repository will evolve over time. Research, including that performed in the Euratom programme, is essential to understand the varied and complex processes involved, and following years of investigations the technical consensus is clear: geological disposal is the safest option for the management of nuclear waste, and the risks for society are very small. The section on geological disposal in "Under the microscope" provides more details. Back to top
3. Can we do anything else with nuclear waste?
The fundamental internationally accepted strategy underlying the management of radioactive waste is to concentrate the waste and confine it long enough to allow radioactive decay to render it harmless. Other waste management options such as dispersal and dilution, e.g. sea disposal, are therefore not appropriate in the case of radioactive waste. However, the most hazardous forms of radioactive waste (spent nuclear fuel and vitrified reprocessing residues) will require very long timescales, perhaps hundreds of thousands of year, to decay to safe levels, so the chosen management option must be capable of ensuring the waste remains confined for extremely long periods. This means that storage on or near the Earth's surface must be excluded as a permanent solution, since we cannot guarantee that the necessary societal infrastructures will remain in place in order to ensure the necessary monitoring and maintenance of the storage facilities over such time spans. Furthermore, geo-climatic events such as further ice-ages are likely to occur during these long intervals, again rendering surface or near surface disposal inappropriate. In all national radioactive waste management programmes that have studied a range of long-term management options using expert and stakeholder solicitation, geological disposal has always been retained as the only viable option. In conclusion, geological disposal is the only safe long-term management option for nuclear waste because it is the only one that can guarantee confinement of the waste over the timescales needed for it to decay to safe levels. In addition, R&D programmes have demonstrated the technical and economic feasibility of geological disposal.
With all waste, the basic rule is the '3 Rs' i.e. reduce, recycle and reuse. This applies equally to radioactive waste. In 'under the microscope' there is more explanation of the reduction and recycling processes possible with spent nuclear fuel - collectively referred to as partitioning and transmutation (P&T). However, no matter what the efficiency of these and other processes to minimise waste there will always remain quantities of 'ultimate waste' that must be disposed of in an appropriate manner. Back to top
4. Can Chernobyl happen again?
Much has been written about the causes of the Chernobyl disaster. We now have a full and complete understanding of what happened and, more importantly, why it happened. As with all such serious accidents involving very complex technology, the causes are multiple and acted at several levels. Firstly, regarding the type of reactor (Russian RBMK), the design was flawed and the fuel, moderator and coolant combination meant it had unfavourable characteristics under certain conditions. Secondly, the absence of a reactor containment building meant that a serious accident could release radioactivity into the environment. Thirdly, the training of the operators was inadequate. Fourthly, the nuclear regulatory authority was poorly resourced and incapable of providing adequate regulatory control, which contributed to a general lack of "safety culture" in the Soviet Union at the time. In the wake of the accident, all these causes were addressed in one way of another, often with financial aid and expert support from the EU. This has included retrofitting of safety systems to existing RBMKs, support to the nuclear utilities to improve operator training and technical assistance to the regulatory authorities. The situation now is therefore no longer comparable with that in 1986. The Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant in Lithuania, which operated this design of reactor, was obliged to shut down its two reactors before the end of their design lifetime as a condition of entry into the EU. As a result, the second of its two reactors closed definitively at the end of 2009, and the RBMK is now in operation at only a handful of sites in Russia. The RBMK is considered an obsolete design and no more will be built. Regarding other types of reactors in operation worldwide, these invariably have containment buildings that prevent radioactive material from being dispersed into the environment in the highly unlikely event of a severe accident involving damage to the reactor core. The high level of operator training worldwide, as well as the level of national control and international oversight by regulatory authorities and international bodies, is such that it is highly unlikely that the same combination of human and technical factors could occur again. Back to top
5. Should I be worried if I need to have an X-ray?
All exposure to ionising radiation probably carries some risk, even though the risk from exposure to natural background levels of radiation is negligible. Nonetheless, any additional exposure of above these background levels resulting from industrial or medical practices must be subject to control and justified by the benefits that these practices may bring. In the case of medical exposure, X-rays provide invaluable diagnostic information, greatly facilitating the treatment of the patient. These benefits far outweigh and minor additional risk resulting from exposure to the ionising radiation and there is certainly no need to be unduly worried if you require an X-ray in such circumstances - though in other cases, such as routine X-ray screening of non-smokers for lung cancer, or dental X-rays for cosmetic reasons, the risk-benefit balance is less clear-cut. Other medical therapeutic and diagnostic techniques involving radiation are also extremely valuable, though care must be taken to limit the doses to the patient (and the medical staff) while maximising benefits. Euratom research projects have been actively involved in this effort, and are helping to improve medical techniques and gain a better understanding of the fundamental damage mechanisms at the level of the cell resulting from radiation exposure. Back to top