“Spain has the responsibility of holding on to its nuclear fleet”
Ignacio Durán Escribano is a retired professor of atomic and nuclear physics, Professor Emeritus Ad-Honorem at the University of Santiago de Compostela and advisor for the United Nations' International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). In this interview, he indicates that "prejudices against nuclear energy are based on a lack of information", and for this reason calls for this technology to reach all levels, "starting with basic education." He believes that Spain needs nuclear energy because "currently and for many decades, it is the only clean, continuous source of energy with a stable price." "Spain has the responsibility of holding on to its nuclear fleet," he adds.
In an article, you indicated that there is an important difference between the actual risks of the use of energy and how they are generally perceived. Why is that?
This happens in all the fields where the social perception of risks is complex.
We accept the risks —even mortal ones—of many industrial activities, probably because we have always known them. But the fear of radioactivity is something very recent, it's been there for just about two generations. A change in public opinion regarding nuclear energy would seem logical, but for this to happen the right information must be spread at all levels, starting with basic education. The students at faculties of physics must go through a shift in their mentality to accept that the potential risks of exposure to radioactivity are preventable and limited, depending on the doses received.
“The potential risks of exposure to radioactivity are preventable and limited, depending on the doses received”
They receive more information than other sectors in education, and thus they acquire the capacity to develop an accurate perception of the risks.
How do you think we could instill in our society knowledge of the benefits of using nuclear energy?
Knowledge of nuclear energy cannot be separated from environmental education. Natural radioactivity has been part of life on Earth since its origins, and nothing sets it apart from artificial radioactivity. It is not difficult to introduce notions on radon, potassium-40 or cosmic radiation into the learning curricula in order for them to compare them to the controlled use of radioactivity at the medical and industrial levels.
“Knowledge of nuclear energy cannot be separated from environmental education”
We always need to start with basic education, in order to create the social perception that risks are associated with the received doses, which are measurable and thus controllable. You do not need to be a radiometry expert to become familiar with radiations and know that, by establishing dosimetric limits, you can live with them just like you do with so many other toxic products. You can only make a correct evaluation of the risk/benefit balance if you know both. The benefits of a clean and safe source of energy are easy to explain, but you also need to know the risks and how to relativize them.
“Natural radioactivity has been part of life on Earth since its origins”
¿Do you believe that the current news on energy and the environment encourage speaking about the positive aspects of nuclear energy?
Aside from constantly optimizing energy resources, the extremely urgent fight against global warming requires the total suppression of carbon from the energy sources, and minimizing the use of the other fossil fuels. To replace these super polluting sources we have the development of the so-called renewables (wind, solar and hydro), but these sources are affected by intermittences and depend on meteorological variables. Thus, we need to do two basic things: develop energy storage systems and maintain nuclear energy, which, currently and for many decades, is the only clean, continuous source of energy with a low, stable price. To these two basic things must add adapting the electric distribution network to the new expectations of production and consumption, because—and we must not forget this—20% to 30% of the electricity produced is lost in the network itself before it reaches its destination.
“The extremely urgent fight against global warming requires the total suppression of carbon”
The circumstantial question of the price of energy has a clear direct impact on social wellbeing. It is of little use to have a proper mix of energy production sources if the established laws for the market are not well founded. In this sense, nuclear energy helps in that it is relatively cheap and its behaviour is predictable.
In a recent opinion article, you indicated that it is "essential" for nuclear power plants to operate longer. What are your arguments?
Spain has a set of safely operating nuclear reactors under the supervision of the Nuclear Safety Council. In these difficult years we are living, if it hadn't been for that sustained 20% of electric production at a steady price, all social welfare policies would have suffered incalculable decreases. At the same time, industrial activities that require high consumption of energy would have been excessively taxed, which would have put them in a difficult situation when competing in the European market. Spain is struggling to overcome these continuous crises, and nothing leads us to believe that they will stop coming. If we add a reduction of nuclear energy, we will be acting irresponsibly towards social welfare and industrial development. Spain has the unavoidable responsibility to maintain and renew its nuclear fleet within a clean, affordable and safe mix.
“If we reduce nuclear energy, we will be acting irresponsibly towards social welfare and industrial development.”
In your articles, when responding to some antinuclear arguments, you also explain that uranium reserves will not run out. Are there enough reserves around the world?
When you study the issue of global reserves of the various non-renewable fuels, you come to the conclusion that the initial approach of estimating its depletion is not correct. We must consider the steady increase of prices, which depends both on the steady reduction of reserves and on the steady increase in demand. In the case of fossil fuels, an exponentially continuous rise in price is to be expected as long as its reserves are not replenished at a historical pace; thus, they are doomed to become scarce. The case of uranium (or thorium) is different, not so much because its natural reserves could be large, but because in the reactors' combustion cycles only very small percentages of the fuel are burnt. In a few words, the combustion cycle does not deplete the fuel because it is characterized by the accumulation of residual isotopes from the fission and capture processes, which cause a loss of efficiency and an excess of gamma radiation. This used fuel is susceptible to be reprocessed in order to separate unwanted isotopes and recover full capacity as fresh fuel.
“Uranium and thorium will never be scarce”
Furthermore, certain reactor designs (MOX), of which there are various models in operation, can use fuel mixes that include residual plutonium-239. This increases the stock of nuclear fuel. These fuel utilization operations have an affordable cost and ensure that uranium and thorium will never be scarce, and as happens with fossil fuels, there will be no exponential price increase.
People are concerned about the management of radioactive waste. What would you tell them?
After seventy years of experience in the commercial operation of nuclear reactors, it is being proved that all the historical concerns now have suitable solutions. Storage, in the various stages of the process, no longer presents environmental problems, but it is true that the majority of the population reject the idea of living near storage plants that provide no tangible benefits, especially when the information that reaches them is partial and contradictory. As well as providing correct information based on proven experiences in other countries, it is necessary to provide immediate benefits for the region that houses a storage plant.
After the United States, France, United Kingdom, Canada, Finland, South Korea, China, Russia, de Czech Republic and many other countries have firmly embraced this technology, how do you envision the future of nuclear power in the short term, in Europe and around the world?
In its recent Sixth Assessment Report on Climate Change, The United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) indicates that the current rate of reduction of greenhouse gases is not correct to rever the global warming tendency. To this we must add the disastrous war of Russia against Ukraine, which brings to light the dependence on natural gas in the European context of reducing the nuclear fleet led by Germany and Italy. If we look at the evolution of nuclear reactors, we see that between 1999 and 2020 103 reactors have been decommissioned and 104 have gone into operation; generation, nevertheless, has increased thanks to the increase in average power of new-generation reactors. However, over half of the decommissioned reactors were not shut down for technical reasons but for political reasons, which contributes to the deceleration of the fight against climate change.
“Over half of the decommissioned reactors were not shut down for technical reasons but for political reasons”
In the past decade, we are seeing a change of tendency that started with the Eastern countries before it did with those in the West. According to the Word Nuclear Association currently there are 55 reactors under construction in 19 countries, and the OCDE International Energy Agency (IEA), in its 2021 Word Energy Outlook, expects a 26% increase of installed nuclear capacity globally, mainly in China, Russia, India, South Korea and United Arab Emirates. This global 26% increase might look relatively high, but the IEA report deduces that the accumulated impact of all the clean sources will barely result in a 1% reduction of total CO2 emissions by 2050.
“We must call for the responsible renewal of the nuclear fleet to reduce emissions”
We must, therefore, call for the responsible renewal of the nuclear fleet, while the excesses produced by intermittent sources are developed at a forcedly excessive rate.