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Nuclear power: our poisoned gift to present and future generations

Image: Mr Doomits/Shutterstock.com

In the 1980s, the main fear of humanity was not yet climate change. It was the outbreak of a nuclear conflict, which would wipe out a large part of humanity. It was the time of the arms race between the United States and the USSR, and of the doctrine of  » Mutually Assured Destruction » (MAD ), which can be summarized as follows:  » You have enough to destroy me completely, but I also have enough to destroy you completely. If you attack me with nuclear weapons, I will retaliate immediately and we will both be destroyed, and humanity with us « . The United States and the Soviet Union each had tens of thousands of nuclear warheads, enough to destroy the biosphere several times over.

At that time, during a discussion, Professor Pierre Piérart, a biologist at the University of Mons and a well-known militant pacifist in Belgium, told me:

  • Do you realize that if, tomorrow, a major nuclear conflict were to wipe out most of humanity, their descendants could never (even in several millennia) rebuild a society as developed as ours?
  • Why?
  • To arrive at our developed society, humanity had to go through several stages, including the use of easily extracted minerals, such as flint at ground level, peat, coal, iron outcropping from the ground, seeping oil, etc. If our civilization disappeared, our descendants would not be able to go through this stage, because we have consumed all the materials that are easy to extract. Humanity would be limited to the stone age.

I still remember that conversation, and it has come back to me many times since. Today, when we talk about the depletion of raw materials, Professor Piérart’s reflection remains relevant.

To return to the subject of the day, nuclear power, I ask the question: what gift will we leave to our children, grandchildren and even our contemporaries?

Since 1990, with the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, we naively believed that the era of nuclear weapons was over. The START and SORT treaties have led to the dismantling of a large part of the nuclear arsenals of the two superpowers. But the number of operational nuclear warheads remains considerable. As for the intermediate powers (France, Great Britain, China), they show no desire to reduce their nuclear arsenal. The news also shows us the will of some other countries, such as North Korea and Iran, to acquire nuclear weapons.

Since the 1990s, nuclear weapons have been no more than a concept. There is talk of nuclear deterrence, but no actual use. What government would be crazy enough to actually use nuclear weapons? But no! Everyone knows that there are no more crazy leaders today.

Then comes February 2022 with Russia’s attack on Ukraine and Putin’s threats. The question arises as to the real effects of Russia’s use of nuclear weapons. To reassure the population, we speak of tactical nuclear weapons, of battlefield. These, being « tactical », would have only limited effects. Except that tactical nuclear weapons have powers comparable to those launched on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.

No one knows how the conflict in Ukraine will end. But whatever the case, it is clear that nuclear power will not be disinvented. This will be the gift of our generations to humanity for the rest of its existence. Poisoned gift for several reasons.

First, there is the very existence of nuclear weapons and the real threat of their use. The more nuclear weapons there are, the greater the likelihood that one or more nuclear weapons will be detonated, either accidentally or on purpose. What would Hitler have done if he had had nuclear weapons in 1945? What will a future mad dictator do?

Then there is the question of nuclear reactors. It is they, the civilians, who produce the plutonium needed for nuclear weapons. In the 1960s, when the number of civilian nuclear power plants began to grow rapidly, everyone knew that two major risks would be faced: nuclear reactor safety and waste.

The question of security was quickly « solved »: containment, strict monitoring of reactor operation, regulated access. Whether you like nuclear energy or not, you have to recognize that the nuclear safety culture is very important. This did not prevent the Chernobyl (1986) and Fukushima (2011) accidents from happening, with the consequences we know: immediate irradiation, evacuation of radioactively contaminated areas for many years, etc. Following these accidents (notably Fukushima), various « stress tests » have been carried out throughout the world. These tests showed that nuclear power plants were less safe than previously thought. Since then, additional measures have been taken, including (but not limited to) dealing with terrorist threats. The delay in the development of the future EPR reactors would be partly due to these safety measures. But even if the measures remain important, nuclear technology is the work of men. And no man is infallible.

This does not prevent politicians from advocating the redevelopment of nuclear power, or even the construction of small nuclear reactors.

Then comes the problem of nuclear waste. The cases of civilian and military waste are similar. From the beginning of the nuclear age, it was known that the operation (and dismantling) of civilian plants and the dismantling of weapons would produce significant amounts of radioactive waste. The 1960s and 1970s were the years of unbridled scientific optimism. Nuclear science was in its infancy, and it was clear then that researchers would find ways to dispose of nuclear waste. Since then, many researchers, engineers and technicians have been working on the subject… without finding a realistic solution. The successive postponements of decisions by Ondraf (the Belgian radioactive waste management organization) and other national organizations clearly show the uncertainty and disarray of the communities involved.

Radioactive waste is not ordinary waste. Of course, the quantities are much lower than those of industrial and domestic waste. But their dangerousness lasts for centuries, even millennia for the most dangerous. Remember that the least hazardous waste from nuclear power plants will have to be kept for about 300 years before the radioactive risks become low. 300 years ago, Louis XV was a young king of France. Even if we shut down all nuclear reactors today, if we dismantle all nuclear weapons in the world, distant future generations will have to deal with the waste.

The recent invasion of Ukraine by the Russian army revealed another point that had been overlooked until now. Civil nuclear power is a technology of peace, not war. In order for the reactors to operate with maximum safety, the places where they are located must be peaceful. Regulated and secure access to control rooms, surveillance and physical security of reactors and radioactive waste storage pools are only possible in peacetime. We saw this with the (apparently minor) damage observed during the takeover of the Zaporizhia nuclear power plant by the Russian army. It is not safe to fire guns or heavy weapons against the buildings of nuclear power plants, or even to put pressure on the technicians and managers of the reactors. And what if, intentionally or by accident, a bomb or a missile exploded in the middle of a pool storing radioactive material? There would be no nuclear explosion, but the amount of radioactivity vaporized would be comparable to or greater than that emitted during the Chernobyl accident.

As we can see, nuclear power (military and civil) will outlive us for centuries, if not longer. Whatever we do today, it will be up to future generations to manage our problems. So that today we can live comfortably.

This is the gift that we offer to our contemporaries, our children, our grandchildren and their descendants.

Michel Wautelet
Professor Emeritus of the University of Mons

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