“Radioactivity is present in nature, it is not an artificial thing"
Chemist Lara Duro leads the consulting company Amphos 21, a member of the Spanish Nuclear Industry Forum. With their team of over 200 people they conduct research, development and innovation projects for industries including nuclear. Duro, very knowledgeable in this sector, indicates that “nuclear energy does not emit CO2. It guarantees supply regardless of the time of day or weather conditions. Nuclear must be part of the energy mix in order for us to make a safe transition towards a cleaner power generation, making it possible to limit greenhouse gas emissions”.
"Our consultancy services often include R + D as well as advanced numeric modeling"
Who are the members of Amphos 21, and what services do they offer?
We are a group of companies in the field of environmental consultancy, dedicated mostly to the nuclear, mining, water and chemical sectors. Our consultancy services often include R + D as well as advanced numeric modeling for any complex issue related to the uranium cycle, from its collection in the mine to high-, medium- and low-level radioactive waste. The team dedicated to the nuclear sector is composed of chemists, geologists, hydrogeologists, physicists and engineers. We develop many of our products for radioactive waste management companies all over the world and we conduct studies on their short-, medium- and long-term management.
What daily challenges do you face as Director of Amphos 21?
Our projects include a lot of research, development and innovation, and the team needs to be always up to date with the latest developments so we can offer our clients the best. This is a challenge in itself, not just from the point of view of management but to for all the members of the team.
"At Amphos 21 we have a very important mission as an organization, an exceptional team and clients that understand and value what we do"
What made you study chemistry and train as an expert in radioactive waste?
I loved chemistry from a very young age. In high school I had a teacher whose classes were fascinating, and I found his enthusiasm infecting. Marie Curie was another inspiration, since there are not many female role models in scientific careers. One thing led to another and when I finished my degree I was fortunate to receive a scholarship to study my doctor’s degree with funding from a European project from the radioactive waste program. In the course of my life I was lucky to be surrounded by extraordinary people, thanks to whom I could learn and evolve. At Amphos 21 we have a very important mission as an organization, an exceptional team and clients that understand and value what we do.
What is the role of nuclear energy in the energy transition and the fight against climate change?
Nuclear energy does not emit CO2; it guarantees supply regardless of the hour of day or the weather conditions. In my opinion, it must be part of the energy mix that allows us to make a safe transition to a cleaner generation and limit the emissions of greenhouse gases. Developed countries have evolved through the years by burning carbon, gas, petroleum… that is what developing countries are doing right now and what supposedly developed countries are still doing. Now, however, we have an opportunity to develop differently both socially and economically, and to ensure that this evolution can be sustained in time. This solution involves nuclear generation combined with renewable energies. There are no shortcuts.
"There is a general lack of knowledge in society on the applications of radiation"
Do you think there are taboos around nuclear energy?
Absolutely, and it comes as no surprise. It is important to consider that the presentation to the world of the power of nuclear energy came in 1945 with the detonation of two bombs. The stigma of “nuclear” became real. There is a general lack of knowledge in society on the applications of radiation, and we tend to hold on to the most apocalyptic and negative side of things, which impacts us the most. I personally believe that the taboo is not only around nuclear energy but also radioactivity in general. We receive radioactive doses just by living in our planet, and we should all be aware of this. Rocks, the atmosphere, the entire planet contain radioactive isotopes and we receive this radiation, we cannot avoid it. Recently, Operador Nuclear, who spreads information on nuclear matters in social media, compared of the dose received when you eat a banana with the dose received by a person living near a nuclear power plant for a year. This comparison became famous. Radioactivity is present in nature, it is not an artificial thing.
"Transparency is the best method to eliminate taboos and prove that the safety standards in the nuclear sector are the highest in any other technology"
What must be done to put a stop to these prejudices?
The only thing that eliminates taboos is information and educating society. You must provide all the possible information, train and educate so that individuals and society at large can develop their own criteria. It is very easy to set public opinion against a technology by using its negative applications. I believe that the “no nuclear” mantra that has been going on for many years is now starting to break, partly thanks to the information, dissemination and training from institutions like yours, Foro Nuclear, and partly because the climate emergency we face makes it necessary to set forth the advantages and disadvantages of all the energy sources at our disposal, leaving out convictions that do not respond to proven facts. The recent resolution by the European Parliament on the contribution of nuclear energy to mitigate climate change is crucial. In summary, I think the only thing you can do to eliminate this taboo is inform society, continue to spread information and not be afraid to say that nuclear energy is a solution that will help resolve the climate situation. Transparency is the best method to eliminate taboos and prove that the safety standards in the nuclear sector are the highest in any other technology.
"Every industrial process generates some form of waste which can be reused or handled as waste"
Those against nuclear power consider radioactive waste a problem. What would you say to them?
First of all, not only those who oppose nuclear power see a problem in radioactive waste, since radioactive waste, as any other type of waste, is a problem. What we must stress is that it is a manageable problem. The problem lies in what not managing waste means. All countries that generate radioactive waste have an organization with highly skilled professionals that handle the management, responsible for setting up the requested waste management plans. In Spain this organization is the National Radioactive Waste Company, Enresa.
Secondly, I would make them reconsider the meaning of “waste” as such. Any chemistry student is taught to calculate the output of a reaction or process. The reason is the impossibility of the total output or zero waste. Every industrial process generates some form of waste which can be reused or handled as waste, whether it is urban, industrial or radioactive.
"Radioactive waste generated by the various applications of radioactivity in the EU is 1,000 times lower than that of toxic industrial waste"
What volumes are we talking about?
The volume of radioactive waste generated by the various applications of radioactivity in the European Union is 1,000 times lower than that of toxic industrial waste. Out of this volume, 99.9% corresponds to low-, medium- or high-activity waste, which takes 100 to 1,000 years to the same radioactive levels as to those found in nature. These periods of time might seem very long, but it is important to highlight this data because it is the opposite situation to toxic waste, which never reduces its toxicity. This 99.9% of the waste volume undergoes treatment, inertization and stabilization processes in several matrixes and is stored in high-security sites. Nowadays, countries with nuclear power plants as well as countries that generate radioactive waste from sources other than energy generation such as medical, industrial or research applications, manage their waste with a high level of safety.
High-activity waste are composed of a very small fraction of the waste generated by nuclear power plants. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the total high-activity waste existing in all the OECD countries would occupy the equivalent of 20 Olympic pools. It is important to stress that this waste is manageable and there is viable and safe technology in place to do this. We must avoid the apocalyptic alarmism created by ignorance and lack of awareness: radioactive waste is manageable. What we must do is make the necessary decisions to proceed to their correct management and not leave these decisions up to future generations. We must own our responsibility.
At Amphos 21 you offer solutions for radioactive material. What improvements are you currently working on?
At the moment we have several lines of action that answer to the sector’s needs. One of these is studying materials that make it possible to optimize the treatment and conditioning of medium-and low-activity waste before it is stored. With this purpose, we are doing lab research and numeric modelling to optimize the materials to be used.
"The nuclear sector has the highest safety standards, and that means a lot of investigation as well as using the best practices and methods available"
Another development we are working on is optimizing the design of the underground radioactive waste repositories, which is the internationally accepted option for the long-term management of high-activity radioactive waste. Finland has already built its repository, and this year 2020 it will be applying for an operation license. Sweden is waiting for the approval of its construction license and France is in a similar situation. It is a complex issue involving numerous research projects and simulations, which we have been working on for over 25 years. We make highly detailed conceptual and numerical models to simulate various scenarios for future evolutions of the waste storage facility and the materials used and to optimize their design. The nuclear sector has the highest safety standards, and that means a lot of investigation as well as using the best practices and methods available.
Another line of action that needs attention these days, due to the transposition of the European direction, corresponds to natural radioactive material (NORM), which is generated by several “non radioactive” industries such as some chemical companies, the ceramics industry, extractions and treatment of uranium mineral, etcetera.
"Another challenge is raising awareness in the population and political decision makers on the crucial role of nuclear electric generation to respond to social development needs and to put a stop to climate change"
In your opinion, what challenges does the Spanish nuclear face currently?
The first one is the need to make society and politicians aware that the management of radioactive waste is necessary and we must make decisions regarding this just as is being done in other countries, we cannot leave this legacy to future generations. Just as we have used and are using nuclear power we have the moral obligation to manage the waste we generate. The issue of radioactive waste management must not be politically colored, and neither should the energy transition strategy. We must make decisions for the good of the planet and the society living in it, and these decisions must be based on scientific, technological and socioeconomic knowledge and criteria.
Another challenge is raising awareness in the population and political decision makers on the crucial role of nuclear electric generation to respond to social development needs and to put a stop to climate change. The solution is not to diminish the installed power we use now. The end of the operation license period in a nuclear power plant is not a reason to shut it down. Just as we are seeing in other countries, and given the current climate situation, not considering its continuation, as long as there are safety and operation guarantees, is irresponsible.
Thirdly, I would mention the great challenge: to attract new generations in order to make the proper transfer of knowledge. There are very good professionals in the Spanish nuclear sector that have a lot to give and teach, and we need new professionals that can learn and generate the knowledge necessary for social advancement.
"The emissions market has not proven its effectiveness, so from my perspective we must apply a simple norm: those who contaminate must pay"
Recently, Madrid held the Climate Summit. What is your conclusion of this conference regarding nuclear energy?
The truth is that I was a bit disappointed by the Summit in general. Europe seems to be the only area that reaches compromises, and they have much room for improvement. Besides, not even all countries are in agreement. It does not seem that there was any real consciousness of the magnitude of the problem we face, and even though the role of nuclear in the transition’s energy mix was recognized we need all countries to embrace it in order to move forward.
The solution, in my opinion, also involves penalizing carbon emissions. The emissions market has not proven its effectiveness, so from my perspective we must apply a simple norm: those who contaminate must pay. It is not easy but it is the only thing I think can dissuade those who lag behind the advancement towards a cleaner generation. The new world economic order is not organized by nations but by organizations and companies. It is really up to large corporations to do something about it: raise awareness and assume responsibility, and nations and multinational organizations must legislate. These are the basis of advancement.
"Nuclear power plants are designed to last many more years beyond their license and they should operate as long as their license is extended based on technical criteria"
While some countries are presenting shutdown agendas other build reactors are even allowed to operate for 80 years. Why this difference in attitudes?
As I said before, the fact that a nuclear power plant reaches the end of its operating license period does not mean that it has reached the end of its operating life. Nuclear power plants are designed to last many more years beyond their license and they should operate as long as their license is extended based on technical criteria. The U.S. regulatory organization extended to 80 years the operating license for two units of Turkey Point. Any plan to shut down a nuclear power plant should evaluate its economic, energetic, environmental and social impact. Countries make their own analyses for this purpose, but today the impact on climate change should be one of the primary criteria to make these decisions. In some occasions, not all the repercussions of non-programmed shutdowns without a clean energy generation alternative in place are taken into account.
"For the short and long term, both renewables and nuclear fission are the solution to the transition"
How do you see the future in terms of energy?
According to the International Energy Agency, currently 62% of the world’s electricity is generated with gas and carbon combustion. Clearly, something must change. The main problem is the little to no commitment from countries that lead the world, set tendencies and economically control the planet. As I said before, culture and education are the only solution. I am optimistic. Clean energies are gradually increasing their contribution to energy generation. Again, the European Parliament’s resolution was very positive as it helps eliminate the stigma on nuclear energy. I believe we will be able to change the tendency; research and applications of renewable energies are yielding results. Over 50 nuclear reactors are being built in the world; society in general is accepting that we need to change our energy model and it is being done. I also have confidence in the development of new generation modular reactors that produce emissions-free energy in remote locations with no access to other clean energy sources. Fusion research will take some time to be efficient, so for the short and long term both renewables and nuclear fission are the solution to the transition. However, I insist on the need to raise awareness and legislate responsibly.