Sometimes myths, rumors, and ignorance of a subject lead to misunderstanding. Nuclear power is one example. Despite a lot of misunderstanding on the subject, many people are working on busting the myths surrounding it.
The “bad press” of nuclear power has hindered its development in Mexico. A lack of knowledge about how nuclear accidents occur created a resistance to understanding more about this form of power generation.
“We know a great deal about what happened in accidents like Chernobyl and Fukushima. It’s necessary to understand the political and social context of the time. The Chernobyl reactor, in particular, generated electricity but that technology is no longer used due to armament issues,” says Raquel Heredia, a sustainable development engineer at Tec de Monterrey.
As for the 2011 accident in Fukushima, Japan, it wasn’t a nuclear accident. The plant’s facilities, as well as much of the island, were affected by a tsunami.
Heredia is founder and president of the non-profit association Women in Nuclear (WiNMX), an organization that publicizes the benefits of nuclear energy use.
The solar-powered plane
So, what are the benefits of nuclear power?
Despite the poor reputation of this form of power generation, the nuclear reactors that produce electricity are safe. “Nuclear power has not only energy applications but also medical and industrial applications. A nuclear power plant produces power with an energy value that is 1,000 times greater than any other form of energy and is clean,” says Heredia.
She mentions the following three main benefits:
It’s clean energy because it doesn’t generate carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions.
Power generation in nuclear reactors is constant, unlike other clean energies such as wind and solar.
It has a low generating cost.
Miguel Alcubierre, former director of the Institute of Nuclear Sciences at the UNAM, stresses that power generation in reactors is becoming safer. “We’re increasingly able to make nuclear plants much safer. In Mexico, there’s only one nuclear plant, Laguna Verde. I think we should have more,” says the theoretical physicist.
As well as being a safe way to generate power, it’s more environmentally friendly.
“In Mexico, we continue to produce a lot of electricity through combustion. It’s one of the most polluting things in the world. It’s horrible. It’s worse than diesel. It’s a mistake that we don’t use nuclear power,” Says Alcubierre.
The obstacles to overcome
While the benefits are clear, one of the main obstacles to overcome is disseminating correct information about its merits. “The accidents we’ve had are minimal compared to the fact that it’s the safest source of (electricity) generation in the world. It’s based on the philosophy of achieving near perfection in the execution of every process,” says Heredia.
A nuclear reactor that generates electricity has up to 45 backup systems. If an event occurs outside the usual operating parameters, everything starts to automatically shut down in order to prevent accidents.
Alcubierre notes that France and Russia generate most of their electricity in nuclear plants. It isn’t popular knowledge, but there have been no accidents at any of France’s nuclear plants. Nor in Mexico, whose only nuclear plant is located in Laguna Verde, Veracruz.
“People are sometimes very afraid of technology. We’ve never had a nuclear accident in Mexico. Still, we seem to be more afraid of it than other countries that have,” says Alcubierre.
The Federal Electricity Commission (CFE), which operates the Laguna Verde nuclear plant, wasn’t available for an interview with Tec Review.
Nuclear energy into the future
One way to think of nuclear plants as an alternative form of clean energy generation is to think about environmental commitments.
“As with everything, nuclear energy has its pros and cons. It’s cleaner and, of course, doesn’t have a direct environmental impact. The problem is when the (uranium) rods and tablets are no longer good for power generation,” says Juan Sánchez, a geological engineer and former alternative energy teacher.
Countries with the greatest use of nuclear energy, such as the United States and Germany, have specialized deposits for the handling of these wastes. The nuclear plant “fuel”, the uranium, must be removed once it has finished its service cycle. “It has to be stored, but it will continue to emit radiation for more than 10,000 years,” Sánchez says.
The geologist adds that even with the special treatment needed to dispose of the waste from this type of power generator, it’s still worth it. “We should be talking about the merits of having nuclear energy. France, in particular, has a lot of small generators. It’s been very efficient with this energy. Laguna Verde was rated more than 15 years ago as one of the most efficient for its constant generation and lack of accidents,” he recalls.
Nuclear plants generate energy at a low cost and provide jobs for 100 years, according to Heredia. But, other forms of clean energy are beginning to be very competitive.
“Some nuclear power-generating countries have moved away a bit from it. (Only) because the other energy sources have become, competitively speaking, very economical,” says Alberto Mendoza, leader of Tec de Monterrey’s Energy and Climate Change Research Group.
Other researchers, such as Luis Zambrano, regret that without a clear environmental policy, support for clean energy such as solar, wind, and nuclear won’t be seen any time soon.