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RTD info logoMagazine on European Research N° 40 - February 2004   
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 TABLE OF CONTENTS
 EDITORIAL
 Taking the pollution out of health care
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 The class of 2003
 Researchers on the high seas
 Protecting the 'whistle-blowers'
 The Prigogine legacy
 The sounds of Ethiopia
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NUCLEAR ENERGY
Title  There are risks and risks

The debate on nuclear energy is based on the principle of precaution. The facts, the fantasy and the risks inherent in other options must all be taken into account when gauging the pros and cons.

Chernobyl – the sarcophagus can be seen resting on the reactor which exploded. This was just one disaster at a badly designed plant that followed a staggering series of human errors defying all logic of safety.© Vadim Mouchkine/IAEA/SGN
Chernobyl – the sarcophagus can be seen resting on the reactor which exploded. This was just one disaster at a badly designed plant that followed a staggering series of human errors defying all logic of safety.
© Vadim Mouchkine/IAEA/SGN
Reactors generate a vast quantity of artificial radioactivity for which extremely sophisticated means of confinement are needed. The Chernobyl 'exception' remains fresh in our memories. In addition to this issue of safety, there is the matter of security. It is no myth that a civil nuclear programme can serve as the launching pad for military activities and illegal trafficking in fissile materials.

Unmitigated evil?
In response to this indictment by the anti-nuclear camp, champions of nuclear energy reject any blanket condemnation of radioactivity. It is a phenomenon which occurs naturally throughout the earth's biosphere, at both harmless and harmful (radon, for example) levels. Artificially produced radiation is also finding increasing applications in medical, industrial and scientific fields. Draconian measures are applied to the dangers these ionising rays pose to populations and to those personnel who are exposed to them on a daily basis, as well as to the radioactivity within the confines of nuclear plants. Meanwhile, research is continuing on radioprotection and the safety of nuclear installations, notably in EU programmes.

But if these nuclear plants are so safe, why Chernobyl? It is now generally acknowledged that this was not due to a failure in the state-of-the-art technology. This one-off disaster occurred within a badly designed plant (no double shell) and following a staggering series of human errors that defied all logic of safety. By contrast, the only other serious and significant nuclear accident recorded – the loss of control followed by meltdown of the reactor core at the Three Miles Island plant in the USA in 1982 – caused no major external damage, the confining wall doing its job effectively.

Striking the right balance
The positron emission tomography technique as used for 3D imaging in neurological, cardiac and oncological applications – nuclear physics and radioactivity find applications in many sectors of the technological society. © CEA – L.MEDARD
The positron emission tomography technique as used for 3D imaging in neurological, cardiac and oncological applications – nuclear physics and radioactivity find applications in many sectors of the technological society.
© CEA – L.MEDARD
Compared with disasters in the chemical or transport sectors, for example, the nuclear industry can be proud of having achieved a remarkable level of industrial safety within the Union over many decades(1). The rare incidents remained under control and were all without major consequence. The nuclear sector is part of a technological society in which risk management must always be a factor. Despite the draconian precautions, the threat of nuclear terrorism remains present of course. But is the risk not much greater with biochemical (sarin gas) or bacteriological (anthrax) weapons which are much easier to make? Also, when making a balanced risk assessment, surely the incalculable risks linked to climate warming (in which the nuclear sector is a 'zero player') must also be included in the equation?

(1) In January 2003, the Commission nevertheless suggested that the Member States should adopt a much more coordinated European approach to nuclear safety.


Printable version

Features 1 2 3 4
  The benefits of an unpopular sector
  There are risks and risks
  Waste management: a crucial matter
  Voyage into a (semi) virtual future

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  Euratom: Europe's research arm

Signed back in 1957 in the wake of the Treaty of Rome, the Euratom Treaty initially set the ambitious task of 'contributing to the rapid growth of the nuclear industries'. Given the uneven manner in which the industry has developed in a limited number ...
 


   
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Features 1 2 3 4
  Euratom: Europe's research arm

Signed back in 1957 in the wake of the Treaty of Rome, the Euratom Treaty initially set the ambitious task of 'contributing to the rapid growth of the nuclear industries'. Given the uneven manner in which the industry has developed in a limited number of Member States, this plan for a 'common nuclear market' was never realised.(1)

On the other hand, the role of Euratom as a lever for continuing European research in this field has never been in doubt and has been incorporated in successive Union programmes. It has been granted funding of € 1.2 billion for the 2002-06 period, 61% of which is earmarked for 'fission' research (see page 14). The rest will go to waste management, radioprotection and reactor safety. Various institutes of the Joint Research Centre (JRC), in Ispra (IT), Karlsruhe (DE), Petten (NL), and Geel (BE) will be undertaking 60% of these missions. The JRC is also providing active European support for the IAEA's efforts in controlling fissile materials and combating illegal trafficking.



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(1) The last 'indicative joint nuclear programme' in 1996 sealed the project's fate by specifying that 'it is for each Member State to decide whether or not to develop the peaceful use of nuclear energy.'

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