Chapter 01: Atoms for Peace

  • This chapter was published on “Inuitech – Intuitech Technologies for Sustainability”
    on November 8, 2010
  • The chapter was updated on November 24, 2015

Nuclear energy also known as atomic energy which is generated as a result of splitting of uranium atoms in a process called fission. It was developed in the 1940s with the focus to produce bombs for the Second World War and this initiative was organized under the code name Manhattan Project.  Later, scientists concentrated on peaceful applications of nuclear technology, believing that the generation of electricity is an important application of nuclear energy.  After years of research, scientists have successfully applied nuclear technology to many other scientific, medical, and industrial purposes.

After the war, the United States government encouraged the development of nuclear energy for peaceful civilian purposes.  Congress created the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) in 1946.  The AEC authorized the construction of Experimental Breeder Reactor I at a site in Idaho.  The reactor generated the first electricity from nuclear energy on December 20, 1951.

The US President Dwight D. Eisenhower delivered his speech to the United Nations (UN) General Assembly in New York City on December 8, 1953 and the title of the speech was “Atoms for Peace”.

The President stated in his speech that the United States knows that if the fearful trend of atomic military build-up can be reversed, this greatest of destructive forces can be developed into a great boon, for the benefit of all mankind.  The United States knows that peaceful power from atomic energy is no dream of the future.  The capability, already proved, is here today.  Who can doubt that, if the entire body of the world’s scientists and engineers had adequate amounts of fissionable material with which to test and develop their ideas, this capability would rapidly be transformed into universal, efficient and economic usage?

President Eisenhower proposed the concept of an international atomic agency under the umbrella of the UN that will be responsible for managing the joint contributions of the stockpiles of normal uranium and fissionable materials from various countries around the world.  The more important responsibility of this atomic energy agency would be to devise methods whereby this fissionable material would be allocated to serve the peaceful pursuits of humanity.  Experts would be mobilized to apply atomic energy to the needs of agriculture, medicine and other peaceful activities. A special purpose would be to provide abundant electrical energy in the power-starved areas of the world.  While leaving the details including the ratios of contributions and the operational procedures for the subsequent and private discussions on the subject, the President made a commitment that the United States is prepared to undertake these explorations in good faith and any partner of the United States acting in the same good faith will find the United States a not unreasonable or ungenerous associate.

The President further committed in his speech to submit to the Congress of the United States, and with every expectation of approval, any such plan that would:

  1. Encourage world-wide investigation into the most effective peacetime uses of fissionable material, and with the certainty that the investigators had all the material needed for the conducting of all experiments that were appropriate;
  2. Begin to diminish the potential destructive power of the world’s atomic stockpiles;
  3. Allow all peoples of all nations to see that, in this enlightened age, the great Powers of the earth, both of the East and of the West, are interested in human aspirations first rather than in building up the armaments of war; and
  4. Open up a new channel for peaceful discussion and initiative at least a new approach to the many difficult problems that must be solved in both private and public conversations if the world is to shake off the inertia imposed by fear and is to make positive progress towards peace.

As for arms control, in its original expression, Eisenhower’s Atoms for Peace proposal sought to reverse the trends towards ever-larger atomic military arsenals by promoting special uses of atomic power.  The president reasoned that nuclear material committed to peaceful uses would not be available for weapons, and believed that because weapons materials were so difficult to produce this would result in reduction in nuclear arms.  With this end in mind, he called for the uranium producers and nuclear-weapon states to contribute fossil material to an international pool.  This initiative was to be administered by an international authority under the aegis of the UN; this pool would be used in the general interest – primarily to provide electrical power to regions of the world starved for energy.

In his final statements of the speech, the President stated that:

  • To the making of these fateful decisions, the United States pledges before you, and therefore before the world, its determination to help solve the fearful atomic dilemma with the objective to devote its entire heart and mind to finding the way by which the miraculous inventiveness of man shall not be dedicated to his death, but consecrated to his life.

Following the speech, an “Atoms for Peace” Program was launched to supply equipment and information to schools, hospitals, and research institutions with the US and throughout the world.  The AEC authorized the construction of Experimental Breeder Reactor I at a site in Idaho.  The reactor generated the first electricity from nuclear energy on December 20, 1951.

A major goal of nuclear research in the mid-1950s was to show that nuclear energy could produce electricity for commercial use.  The first commercial electricity-generating plant powered by nuclear energy was located in Shippingport, Pennsylvania.  It reached its full design power in 1957.  Light-water reactors like Shippingport use ordinary water to cool the reactor core during the chain reaction.  They were the best design then available for nuclear power plants.

 1.         GLOBAL DEPLOYMENT OF NUCLEAR ENERGY:

The new Nuclear Energy Technology Roadmap published by the International Energy Agency (IEA) and the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA) says nuclear energy allows countries to build scalable, efficient and long-term power sources that can serve as a base to underpin other forms of low-carbon generation. The report says nuclear global capacity must more than double by 2050, with nuclear supplying 17 percent of global electricity generation by then.

The report highlights the need for stable, long-term investment frameworks to allow capital-intensive low carbon projects, such as nuclear power plants, to be developed. The roadmap also emphasizes the need for greater certainty in electricity prices, including the cost of carbon emissions.

Nuclear energy came a long way since the first commercial electricity-generating plant in 1957.  The following graph illustrates:

Nuclear Electricity

2.       NUCLEAR ENERGY – A SENSIBLE ALTERNATIVE:

Here is a graph which illustrates world energy sources in 2013:

energy sources

Nuclear energy has a huge potential to become instrumental in meeting the electricity demand as the electricity demand around the world has grown by 62 percent for the period from 1980 to 2006 and it is projected for 2030 the demand to grow 45 percent.  Electricity growth is even stronger and it is projected to almost double from 2006 to 2030.  However, increased demand for electricity is most dramatic in developing countries whereas currently some two billion people in the world have no access to electricity and it is a high global priority to address this lack.

With the United Nations predicting world population growth from 6.5 billion in 2006 to 8.2 billion by 2030, demand for energy must increase substantially over that period.  Both population growth and increasing standards of living for many people in developing countries will cause strong growth in energy demand, expected to be 1.6 percent per year, or 45 percent from 2006 to 2030.

It is confirmed by the research conducted on the subject that over one third of human emitted greenhouse gases come from the burning of fossil fuel to generate electricity, run factories, power vehicles and heat homes.  With all fossil energy, waste products dispersed directly into the air.  Much of this waste takes the form of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide.  Each year fossil fuel waste adds 25 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.  This equates to 70 million tonnes each day – or 800 tonnes a second.  It is projected that in the next 50 years, the global population will use more energy than the total consumed in all previous history.  Consequently, humanity faces a future of radical change- either in the way we produce energy or in the health of our planet.  The reality is that fossil resources- coal, oil and natural gas- being consumed so fast as to be largely exhausted during the 21st Century.

At the same time, climate experts are virtually unanimous in warning that the build-up of the greenhouse gases could become catastrophic, in the century ahead.  Rising sea levels, extreme temperatures, violent storms, devastating droughts and the spread of disease would destroy food production and human habitability in many regions.  These experts warn that radical climate change could eventually destabilize the entire biosphere.

There is enough evidence to support the statement that nuclear energy could make a major contribution to reducing dependence on fossil fuel and reducing carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions in a cost effective way.

The fact is that nuclear energy is a sustainable development technology.  Nuclear fuel will be available for multiple centuries, its safety record is superior among major energy sources, its consumption causes virtually no pollution, its use preserves valuable fossil resources for future generations, its costs are competitive and still declining its waste can be securely managed over the long term.

Even though the applications of nuclear technologies include Medical Diagnosis, Water Resources (Desalination), Livestock Health Protection, Food Preservation, Agriculture Productivity, Human Illness Cure, Human Nutrition Enhancement, Advanced Environment Science, Eradication of Virulent Pest, Strengthen Industrial Quality Control, etc., but the generation of clean, safe, and affordable electricity is the main application.  The important attribute of nuclear reactors to generate electricity without emitting greenhouse gases was the main factor that contributed to the mandate of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which is designed to accelerate and enlarge the contribution of nuclear energy to peace, health, and prosperity throughout the world.

Nuclear Energy is heat produced by nuclear fission and the process of generating nuclear electricity is no different from any other steam-electric power plant. Water is heated, and steam from the boiling water turns turbines and generates electricity.  The main difference in the various types of steam-electric plants is the heat source.  Heat from a self-sustaining chain reaction boils the water in a nuclear reactor whereas coal, oil, or gas is burned in other, power plants to heat the water.

A gradual but stead surge in the deployment of nuclear energy to generate electricity around the world is indeed a testimony to the fact that nuclear energy is being accepted and adopted as a perceptive choice for a safe, clean, and affordable energy solution.  The overall impressive performance of nuclear energy and overwhelming benefits associated with this technology is turning out to be a convincing factor to agree what James Lovelock, world leader in popularization of environment issues, said about nuclear energy.  There is no more sensible alternative than nuclear energy if we really want to sustain our civilization.

3.       CRITICAL SUCCESS FACTORS:

The three factors highlighted below may be considered critical for the acceptance and adoption of nuclear energy on a wider scale, are planning to be discussed in detail in the future chapters:

3.1      Financial: 

The initial capital costs including decommissioning and waste of nuclear power plants currently cost more to build than power plants using coal or gas.  This difference is narrowing, as long experience with nuclear power helps to shrink construction periods and extend plant lifetimes.  Already, due to low cost fuel and improved efficiency, nuclear plants- once built- can be less expensive to operate.  Thus, even in a marketplace that does not credit its virtues, nuclear power is increasingly competitive.  Based on an expert financial analysis, putting a tag on harmful emissions would quickly make nuclear power the cheapest option- as well as the cleanest- for generating increasing energy in the global scale;

3.2      Safety:

The international community for nuclear energy is well aware of the atrocious effects of nuclear accidents and it has invested unprecedented efforts on preventive and safety measures to make sure that nuclear plants around the world are safe and reliable.  As part of its regular programme as well as its 21 international joint projects, the NEA – A part of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) – continually strives to help ensure that nuclear energy remains safe, clean and affordable.  Its work as Technical Secretariat of the Multinational Design Evaluation Programme (MDEP) and the Generation IV International Forum (GIF) also contributes to this goal; and

3.3      Disposal of High-level Nuclear Waste:

It is a most common and accepted practice that most countries with operating nuclear plants have active programmes to develop disposal facilities for high-level nuclear waste.  These programmes have made significant technical progress in the past 20 years in identifying suitable sites and procedures for safely isolating radioactive waste from the environment.  There is a wide agreement among scientists that geological isolation is the best method to dispose of high-level and long-lived wastes.  Most governments have adopted this approach.

Another important consideration for nuclear electricity is that it is more environmentally friendly from a waste management perspective as well.  In addition to emitting the large quantities of greenhouse gases and sulfuric acid, a 1,000 MWe coal-burning plant produces some 300,000 tonnes of ash per year, containing among other things radioactive material and heavy metals, which end up in landfill sites and in the atmosphere.  On the other hand, the radioactive waste arising from a nuclear plant of the same capacity amounts only to some 800 tonnes of low and medium level waste, and some 30 tonnes of high level waste per year, which can be isolated from the biosphere.

Resources:

  1. Wikipedia – United States Atomic Commission;
  2. IAEA – Atoms for Peace;
  3. International Energy Agency – Taking a fresh look at the future of nuclear power;
  4. World Nuclear Association – Nuclear Share figures;
  5. World Nuclear Association – World Nuclear Power Reactors and Uranium Requirements;
  6. AEA – Energy Electricity, and Nuclear Power Estimates for the period up to 2030;
  7. World Nuclear Association – Nuclear Power in the World Today;
  8. World Nuclear Association – World Energy Needs and Nuclear Power; and
  9. World Nuclear Association – The Biosphere at Risk.

mir

 

Dr. Mir F. Ali

Chapter 2 …

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