Use of Nuclear Energy in Europe
Northern Helsinki Upper Secondary School
Sarah-Maria de la Rosa Zorita
nuclear power plants
commercial nuclear power plants were introduced in Europe
in the 1950s and the 1960s when the risks and dangers involved
in the use of nuclear energy were not known (today there are
more than 120 nuclear power plants in Europe). Nuclear energy
was idealized until the late 60s when we started to realize
the disadvantages of nuclear energy which had so far been
underestimated or hushed up. Despite the drawbacks the construction
of nuclear power plants has not stopped because nuclear energy
is cheap and readily available in large quantities and it
doesn't pollute like fossil fuels do.
common types of reactor used in nuclear power plants are pressurised-water
reactor and boiling water reactor. Their operating principles
are really complicated. The reactors of a nuclear power plant
use uranium and plutonium as their fuel. One fuel rod gives
as much energy as 78 tons of coal. It doesn't burn by combining
with oxygen, like most fuels, but the heat is produced when
the nuclei of atoms are split in a chain reaction. The resulting
product of combustion consists of isotopes of the uranium
fuel, most of which are radiant. The emerging heat radiates
into water which vaporizes and is transferred via tubes into
a condenser making turbines turn on the way. A generator then
converts their rotational energy into electricity. This is
the operating principle in a nutshell.
nuclear power plants used even though they constitute a threat
to the whole society? In Europe, for example, Germany has
the largest number of nuclear power plants, which, in addition,
are situated all over the country. This is rather like living
near an active volcano and never knowing when it will erupt.
Why do we make such wide-spread use of nuclear energy?
many people who favor nuclear power plants make claims about
the purity of nuclear energy when all the while they are aware
of the fact that money and cheap fuel were the most important
factors, and not the risks involved in the use of nuclear
energy. While coal fueled power stations pollute more aggravating
the greenhouse effect, at least they do not cause genetic
mutations, which can be the result of a nuclear disaster of
the failed further processing of nuclear waste. Although they
oppose nuclear energy, it is doubtful whether people would
be willing to double their electricity bills just to get electricity
not produced in a nuclear power plant. We believe that people's
views of nuclear power plants will change as soon as we find
a way to render nuclear waste harmless. But before that nuclear
power plants will be eyed skeptically and critically.
the undebatable advantages of nuclear energy is that it does
not increase the amount of greenhouse gases. The amount of
nuclear waste is relatively small, it does not spread, and
nuclear power is reasonably cheap. There are also disadvantages.
The danger of radiation can be caused by an accident in a
uranium mine, in a uranium enriching plant, in the transport
and storage of fuel, in nuclear weapons industry, in the handling
and storage of nuclear waste, in a nuclear-powered boat or
submarine, in the crash of a nuclear-powered satellite, and
in a hospital or research facility using radioactive matter.
The greatest risks occur in mining, nuclear power plants and
power plants are a great risk; even the smallest mistake in
the complicated systems of a nuclear power plant can result
in a disaster. The worst accident took place in the former
Soviet Union, today's Ukraine, in Tchernobyl, in 1986. In
the nuclear power plant there were four reactors, one of which
was due to be shut down for its periodic maintenance. Before
that they decided to test how long the slowing generator could
produce electricity. The test ended in tremendous explosions
which broke the reactor, lit a graphite fire and melted the
fuel rods. Radiation escaped into the surrounding area through
the broken roof for ten days. The consequences were disastrous.
The worst fallout was suffered by the immediate surroundings
of the nuclear power plant, but evacuation procedures were
not begun there until after 36 hours had elapsed. A total
of 135,000 people were evacuated from an area with the radius
of 30 km. The area will be unfit for living for decades to
come. The radiation escaping from the nuclear power plant
killed hundreds of people and thousands were exposed to extra
large doses of the dangerous radiation.
disaster at Tchernobyl opened many people's eyes and after
the catastrophe anti-nuclear groups emerged in many countries,
demanding the closing down of nuclear power plants. The issue
worried governments, too, which resulted in a tremendous increase
in the number of back-up systems in nuclear power plants,
and the careful selection of staff.
of nuclear fuel
uranium ore is quarried in a uranium mine. The supply is not
likely to run short at the present rate of use. From there,
uranium is sent on to be enriched in an enriching plant. The
enriched uranium is transported into a fuel plant where it
is turned into uranium oxide ultimately to be packed in fuel
rods. The rods are taken into a nuclear power plant where
they are placed in a reactor. After having been used they
are replaced with new ones. The used fuel, which has become
extremely radioactive, is taken in special containers into
a reprocessing plant. The usable raw materials are separated
from the waste there and the rest is placed in storage to
wait for final disposal.
fuel removed from nuclear reactors is called high activity
waste. The nuclear process also produces less active forms
of waste, so-called power plant waste. A corresponding form
of waste will also be the result when nuclear power plants
are dismantled in the future. Nuclear waste is divided into
low, middle, and high level of activity depending on the level
of radiation in the waste and the danger it presents.
waste can be handled without radiation shielding. It contains
radioactive substances which, when introduced in the human
body eg through the process of respiration, can result in
considerable doses of radiation. Therefore low activity waste
must be isolated from nature for a period of 50 to 100 years.
activity waste has such high levels of radiation that, for
security reasons, it must be handled with remote-controlled
equipment or using radiation shielding. The active matter
content is approximately ten times that of low activity waste.
to the high level of radiation in the high activity waste
the fuel can only be used once, or after use the waste is
recycled. Both alternatives produce high activity nuclear
waste which must be placed somewhere with special precautions
and isolated carefully enough from nature.
the fuel which is removed from the reactors of nuclear power
plants has extremely high levels of radiation. Even though
the activity concentration of the used nuclear fuel ultimately
decreases very fast, it remains highly dangerous for a very
long time. Such high activity waste should under no circumstances
have contact with living organisms and it must definitely
be contained for hundreds of thousands of years.
nuclear power plants have been in use for almost 50 years,
we have accumulated roughly 150,000 tons of radioactive uranium
refuse the radioactivity of which is 1,000,000 petabecquerels
(PBq, 1 PBq = 1,015 Bq). Only a third of this amount has been
disposal of nuclear waste
using nuclear energy have spent a lot of resources on nuclear
waste disposal in the last couple of decades. In the disposal
of middle and low activity waste many countries such as Sweden,
Germany, France, and Spain have reached the final disposal
disposal of nuclear refuse in the ground or bedrock is necessary
in all the present-day types of reprocessing. Nowadays the
preparations are focused on the disposal of high activity
waste. The plans for nuclear waste disposal have been delayed
in many countries because of political or public resistance.
In some countries the instances responsible for nuclear waste
disposal have been loosely defined, which has made decision-making
difficult. All the countries have not been prepared for the
cost of nuclear waste disposal. This subject brings forth
mixed opinions all over the world.
and Finland are among the pioneers in nuclear waste disposal.
In the areas surrounding Finland there is a lot of nuclear
waste in temporary storage. The world has accumulated a total
amount of used nuclear fuel corresponding to over 150,000
tons of uranium, two thirds of which have not yet been either
finally disposed of or reprocessed.
nuclear refuse policy Sweden relies on independent decisions
and her own expertise. Nuclear waste is processed and disposed
of within Sweden's own borders; Sweden neither exports nor
receives nuclear refuse. Swedes, too, aim at finding a suitable
location for final disposal in the hard rock, the similar
kind of bedrock that Finland has. Sweden started research
and development on the final disposal of nuclear waste in
bedrock as early as in the late 1970s. The intended date of
final disposal is around the year 2010.
the processing of used fuel has been developed quite far.
The country also has a research program on final disposal.
In the first stage, France is going to excavate laboratories
in the bedrock and three towns have been selected as potential
localities for them. Laboratories will be built in the bedrock
of at least two or all three of the selected areas. Later,
one of these will be named the location for final disposal.
France aims at beginning final disposal around the year 2010.
used fuel and high activity nuclear waste are going to be
placed in facilities which will be built in the Gorleben salt
bed. Exploratory shafts and tunnels have already been drilled
in the area. Germany strives to begin the actual final disposal
in 2008. There already exists an intermediate storage for
used fuel in the area and the transporting of fuel into it
has brought forth considerable opposition in Germany. An experimental
facility for enclosing used fuel in capsules is also about
to be finished in Gorleben.
of used fuel in Britain is based on reprocessing. In Sellafield
there is a reprocessing plant for used fuel. At the moment
there are no plans for the final disposal of the resulting
high activity waste in Britain, i.e. the preparations have
the disposal of used fuel is based on reprocessing. They have
long researched the final disposal of both low, middle and
high activity nuclear waste. The aim of the Swiss is to be
able to begin final disposal in 2020 at the earliest.
has her work cut out for her in cleaning the nuclear facilities
left behind by the former Soviet Union. In Paldisk they are
clearing out the military base, Tammiku houses the burial
ground of radioactive waste, and the town of Sillamäe strives
to take care of mining refuse containing uranium.
has plenty of experience in treating nuclear waste, but compared
internationally, several shortcomings are seen in her present-day
disposal systems. The preparations for final disposal have
not progressed far. Russia's most important storage and processing
facility for used nuclear fuel is located in Majak in the
Ural region, which is where the used fuel from the Loviisa
nuclear power plant was transported before. Russians are planning
to transfer nuclear waste into containers made from steel
and concrete. This dry container storage facility is meant
to be put into use around the year 2000.
radiation can damage the genotype of living cells, but from
the point of view of the cell damage it makes no difference
whether it is caused by artificial or natural radiation. What
counts is the length of the period of exposure to a dose of
radiation. Even a small dose increases the risk of developing
cancer and a large dose in a short period of time can destroy
cells on a large scale, and even cause radiation sickness,
local injury or foetal injury.
pregnancy unnecessary exposure to radiation must be avoided.
The primary reason is, however, not the risk of developmental
disorders since small doses of radiation do not increase the
number of deformations. Exposure to radiation at a very early
stage, even before the pregnancy is known, can result in an
early miscarriage. If the pregnancy continues regardless of
the exposure the child will, in all likelihood, be completely
healthy. On the other hand, a foetus exposed to radiation
during pregnancy runs a greater risk of developing cancer
later. If the foetus is exposed to a large and sudden dose
of radiation at a sensitive stage (eg the mother receives
radiotherapy during pregnancy), it is possible that the child
will have a small head, be small in terms of size, or even
mentally retarded. In addition to these, other developmental
disorders have not been observed until after massive doses.
alert is given by means of a universal alarm signal if a radioactive
leak has occurred. Everyone should know how to protect themselves
from radiation if one hears a radiation warning or a radiation
PROTECTING ONESELF FROM RADIATION:
Get inside quickly. The more walls you have around you the
better you are protected, thus an air-raid shelter is best.
If going outside is absolutely necessary, you must wear clothing
which covers the skin, fits snugly, and is easily cleaned.
A respirator, a towel, or a paper towel helps prevent radioactive
particles from entering the respiratory organs, ie lungs,
when one breathes.
and doors must be kept tightly closed and air conditioning
must be kept off. Listen to instructions on the radio and
do not call the authorities to inquire about the situation
as it will block telephone lines which will make rescuing
even harder. Cover food (Put foodstuffs in plastic bags or
tightly sealed containers such as the fridge or the freezer.
Canned food is protected well enough as it is.) and drinking
water. Leave the area of the fallout if you are instructed
to do so. Do not take iodine tablets unless the authorities
advise you to do so.
Koulun maantieto Riskien ja mahdollisuuksien maailma (School
geography The world of risks and possibilities)
Tieteen maailma Tiede ja yhteiskunta; Energia ja liikenne
(The world of science Science and Society; Energy and Transport)
Translated by Elina Hyttinen, M.A.
Upper Secondary School