Radioactive warning tape

Breakthroughs in nuclear power and the radioactivity issue

Image credit: Dreamstime

Clean energy and cancer cures, or waste and weapons? We look at the complex nuclear story.

When I went to see Sellafield’s nuclear decommissioning some years ago I was fascinated – and I admit a little nervous – to see the toxic legacy that had been left by previous generations that today’s custodians are still dealing with.

Things, they pointed out, were very different when it started. There was the Cold War raging in the fields of science and technology as well as defence, and there was an urgent need for energy before the days of North Sea oil. In the rush to nuclear, the thorny problem of what to do with the toxic nuclear waste that would remain potentially dangerous for another generation or more was kicked down the road for another generation to deal with – a problem, you could say, to be repeated with climate change.

But it was a very different time. It was the age of Protect and Survive, the hopelessly optimistic government pamphlet that advised a nation under attack to shelter under the kitchen table. It was a time when National Service men, including my former CEO in publishing, watched atomic tests over an island in the Pacific from their ship. It was a nervous time as missile standoffs like the Cuban crisis reverberated around the world. It was a few decades after the nuclear fallout of the atomic strikes on Japan, and a few decades before the Chernobyl disaster.

World events have produced plenty of reason to be fearful of radiation; no wonder it has a bad reputation. Yet it’s a force of nature that can be used for good too. We look at the latest uses from archaeology to research into new medical treatments for cancers, and how the environmental crisis has put nuclear power back on the national agenda. Paul Dempsey argues it till be necessary to meet net-zero targets, but waste remains a problem.

Nuclear fusion would make nuclear power much more attractive as it promises a low-carbon, low-waste form of virtually unlimited power. It’s been the stuff of dreams, a technology that’s been just around that power engineering corner for decades. But this year is a turning point. News of an experiment in Oxford producing record heat energy is just one of the many developments that could make nuclear fusion commercially viable within as little as a few decades. It’s good news for the ITER facility under construction in France and due to start up in 2025 (see graphic below). Scaled-up nuclear fusion may come too late for the more urgent climate change crisis, but there are those close to the engineering who are certain they’ll see it. That’s reassuring for future generations.

How nuclear fusion works

Image credit: Graphic News

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