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Everything You Need to Know About Nuclear Energy
Blog...Everything You Need to Know About Nuclear Energy

Everything You Need to Know About Nuclear Energy

Ecology News
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Nuclear energy is a form of energy. But how and in what context was nuclear power discovered? What are its pros and cons?
Ecology News
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Sometimes subject to criticism, sometimes championed as a solution for the future, nuclear energy often reemerges at the heart of political debate. In the context of the ecological transition, nuclear power is one of the options put forward to rapidly decarbonise our society. However, this opportunity is tempered by the enduring memory of the atomic clouds over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as well as the tragedies of Chernobyl and Fukushima.  

But what exactly is nuclear energy? How and in what context was nuclear power discovered? What are its pros and cons as well as its risks? 

Let’s find out!

What is nuclear energy?

Nuclear energy is a form of energy released by the nucleus of atoms, which is made up of protons and neutrons. It can be generated in two ways: 

  • nuclear fusion (one nucleus fuses with another nucleus); 
  • nuclear fission (a nucleus breaks). 

To date, the method used in energy production is nuclear fission. In this specific case, the process depends on a well-known ore: uranium, found in the Earth's subsoil. 

To learn more, feel free to read our article on nuclear power.

The History of Nuclear Energy

The Discovery of Radioactivity 

The discovery of radioactivity dates back to 1896 when Henri Becquerel, a French physicist, first observed the phenomenon. However, it was Marie Curie who used the term "radioactivity" for the first time, after having extensively studied the properties of Becquerel's "uranium rays". Lord Ernest Rutherford later described the nature of radioactivity in 1903, while Irène Curie and Frédéric Joliot-Curie in turn discovered artificial radioactivity in 1934.

The Discovery of Nuclear Fission 

In 1938, the phenomenon of nuclear fission was officially demonstrated by two German chemists, Strassmann and Hahn. At that time, unfortunately, their collaborator, Lise Meitner, a Jewish refugee in Stockholm, could not be listed as a co-author of the article in a German journal. It was Meitner who understood that uranium-235 nuclei could fission. To be precise, she established that a single small neutron could split these nuclei, containing 92 protons and 143 neutrons, into two fragments – one with 56 protons (barium) and the other with 36 (krypton). 

Lise Meitner and her nephew, Otto Frisch, published their interpretation in January 1939 in the journal Nature. 

At the same time, astronomers Hans Bethe, Carl von Weizsacker, and Charles Critchfield discovered that stars derive their energy from internal nuclear fusion reactions. 

However, the story surrounding the discovery of uranium-235's properties doesn't end here. In the aftermath, other physicists established that after the fission of a uranium-235 nucleus, two or three neutrons are released. These neutrons, in turn, can collide with other uranium-235 nuclei, and so on. 

In other words, the fission of a uranium nucleus surrounded by other nuclei of the same nature triggers an explosive chain reaction.
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The Manhattan Project 

Better known to the general public, the Manhattan Project marks a pivotal moment in the narrative of nuclear energy. From 1941 onwards, several physicists considered the possibility of harnessing the power of nuclear fission. This was achieved four years later, in August 1945, when two atomic bombs exploded successively over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. 

This episode left an indelible mark, sparking the beginning of fear surrounding nuclear power.

Hiroshima was far more costly in life and suffering, inhumane, than it needed to have been, to have been an effective argument for ending the war. This is easy to say after the fact. (...) Throughout the project, and to some extent even now, there is a sense of guilt. (Robert Oppenheimer, 1965)

Contrary to popular belief, Albert Einstein was not directly involved in the development of the atomic bomb. Many mistakenly associate him with its creation due to a famous cover of Time magazine titled "Einstein the Destroyer of Order." 

Featured on this cover is an atomic cloud resembling a cobra, alongside the equation E=MC². Emblematic of the special theory of relativity established in 1905 by Albert Einstein - for which he received the Nobel Prize in Physics - this solidified the association between Einstein and the invention of atomic weapons.  

However, his formula has paved the way for many other advancements in the scientific field. Einstein himself was more interested in discoveries related to gravitation and electromagnetism. 

But in 1939, Albert Einstein, then living in exile in the United States following the persecution of Jews in Germany,received unsettling news from a former colleague, Leó Szilárd, regarding the Nazis' development of a new weapon. With his notoriety, Einstein thought he could help Szilárd in gaining the attention of President Roosevelt, and sent his now-famous letter.

It may be possible to set up a nuclear chain reaction in a large mass of uranium, by which vast amounts of power and large quantities of new radium-like elements would be generated. Now it appears almost certain that this could be achieved in the immediate future. This new phenomenon would also lead to the construction of bombs, and it is conceivable--though much less certain--that extremely powerful bombs of this type may thus be constructed. (Albert Einstein to President Roosevelt, 2 August 1939)

Two months later, in October 1939, the Uranium Advisory Committee was established, marking the beginning of the Manhattan Project led by Robert Oppenheimer. Einstein was not involved due to his German nationality and his left-wing activism; facts perceived potential threats to this war project. 

Horrified by the tragedies caused by the bombs of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (Little Boy and Fat Man), Albert Einstein regretted writing this letter for the rest of his life.

Had I known that the Germans would not succeed in developing an atomic bomb, I would have done nothing. (Albert Einstein at Newsweek, 1947)
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The Emergence of Nuclear Power Plants

Faced with the new challenges embodied by nuclear power, France wasted no time and created the Atomic Energy Commission (CEA) in 1945, in the aftermath of World War II. The construction of several experimental reactors was launched at the same time, leading to the inauguration of the first French electricity-generating reactor in 1956.  

However, it was in the Soviet Union that the first nuclear power plant was built, in 1954. In the following years, nuclear energy entered a phase of rapid industrial expansion in both the United States and Europe. This trajectory was later exacerbated by the 1973 oil crisis and surge in oil prices. 

Pros and Cons of Nuclear Energy

The Pros of Nuclear Energy 

The Relative Safety of Nuclear Power 

In 2013, a study conducted by two NASA researchers concluded that nuclear energy is actually less dangerous than other sources of electricity. 

Could it be that our perception of nuclear power is distorted? 

As mentioned earlier, the images of Hiroshima and Nagasaki continue to resonate in collective memory. So is the troubled face of the "father of the atomic bomb", Robert Oppenheimer, and the regrets of Albert Einstein, whose work led to the development of this weapon.

Subsequently, the spectacular incidents of Chernobyl and Fukushima only exacerbated concerns. However, it must be stressed that these events remain outliers. Additionally, the potential (and real) danger of nuclear power does not make the exploitation of fossil fuels a harmless source of energy. While the latter does not give rise to atomic clouds, it is still responsible for air pollution with catastrophic consequences. Every year, exposure to outdoor air pollution causes the deaths of approximately 4.2 million people worldwide.

The Environmental Impact of Nuclear Power 

Nuclear energy has the advantage that it does not emit greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions – unlike fossil fuels. As demands intensify for reducing these emissions, nuclear power emerges as a viable option. 

Of course, building a nuclear power plant is not carbon neutral. Yet, the same applies to the construction of a wind turbine or the manufacturing of solar panels. 

In short, in view of the climate emergency, nuclear power could serve as a valuable component in the transition towards more sustainable energy practices. It is important to recognise that while solar and wind energy are the most sustainable alternatives, their reliability can be compromised by factors such as cloud cover, nighttime, or lack of wind. 


Nuclear Power Is Undergoing Modernisation 

Like many industries, the nuclear sector continues to evolve. As an example, nuclear reactors now run on uranium. Other types of fuel sources are currently being studied, such as thorium (Th, atomic number 90). 

Thorium is more abundant than uranium and produces less waste, and specifically less radioactive waste. Furthermore, converting thorium into a nuclear weapon is much more difficult! 

While nuclear power is not ideal, some of its benefits and its possible future development could seriously work in its favour. 

The Cons of Nuclear Energy 

The Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons 

The processes used to generate electricity through nuclear power have historically been used to develop weapons. 

The Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, initiated for signature in 1968 (and enforced in 1970), established with the following objectives: 

  • to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and associated technology; 
  • to promote cooperation in the peaceful uses of nuclear energy; 
  • to support the goal of achieving global nuclear disarmament. 

Currently, 191 States have signed this treaty, including the five nuclear-weapon States (France, the United Kingdom, the United States, Russia, and China). India, Israel, and Pakistan, on the other hand, have not signed the treaty and now possess nuclear weapons. 

It is important to note that some signatory States have already withdrawn from this treaty. This was the case of North Korea in 2003.

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Nuclear Waste 

Nuclear power plants generate waste. However, the management and disposal of this waste is the subject of frequent debate.  

In short, 97% of the radioactive waste generated is considered harmless. This is the case for low- and intermediate-level waste, which can be disposed of like regular waste after a few days/weeks.

For the remaining 3% - classified as high-level waste - things get tricky, since they can remain radioactive for hundreds of years. What's worse, even after cooling, their danger persists for thousands or even millions of years. That's why the question of how to store them is so important.

Nuclear Incidents 

Nuclear incidents may be rare, but they remain a cause for concern. Kyshtym, Chernobyl, Fukushima... The number of disasters and their significant consequences have led them to be part of history.

While their causes have varied, the consequences have been identical. In the event of a nuclear disaster, large amounts of radioactive substances are released into the environment, rendering areas surrounding old reactors uninhabitable. This is without mentioning the victims, whose number is difficult to estimate. In addition to those who died from acute radiation poisoning, there are also deaths from long-term illnesses (cancer, in particular).

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