The safety of nuclear's future

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Science  11 Jun 2021:
Vol. 372, Issue 6547, pp. 1131
DOI: 10.1126/science.abj7150

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The explosion at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine 35 years ago forged a strong safety culture that underpins nuclear energy today. At a time when the world was divided profoundly by distrust, the accident prompted nations to collaborate and communicate as they became more transparent and open about their nuclear power programs. After the tsunami of 2011 hit the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in northern Japan, the international community came together again to reinforce the global nuclear safety regime. These anniversaries are reminders of the ever-evolving efforts to strengthen nuclear safety. This is especially important today because public trust is a prerequisite for nuclear power to play its part in mitigating climate change. Too often, the debate about how to move the world onto a more sustainable energy path is framed in the false dichotomy of “either we invest in solar and wind power, or in nuclear energy.” Reaching netzero carbon emissions will require investment in all of them.

The seeds of Chernobyl's tragedy were secrecy, opacity, and lack of accountability. Out of the accident's ashes grew transparency, accountability, and a degree of openness that did not exist before April 1986. Engineers, managers, and regulators reassessed and upgraded existing reactors where necessary. For the first time, the world's nuclear power plant operators came together and established networks of cooperation that still exist today. Not even the Iron Curtain could withstand these new branches of international cooperation. Under the auspices of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), safety standards, norms, and data became part of international collaborative structures with the IAEA at their center. Nuclear safety conventions were passed, and the IAEA created a system of mutual peer reviews in which experts from different countries openly put questions to one another. Substantial progress was made, but upholding those safety norms and procedures remains the responsibility of operators and their countries' regulators.

The tsunami of 2011 caused the second-most impactful accident in nuclear energy's history even though leading international scientists have detected no radiation- induced health effects. In response, a network of institutions, ranging from international donors to technical organizations, came together to help with the stricken reactor's safe decommissioning. Recently, Japan announced its plan to dispose into the sea the treated water stored at Fukushima. At the country's request, the IAEA will provide technical support in monitoring and reviewing the plan's safe and transparent implementation.

After the Fukushima nuclear accident, a few European countries, including Germany, decided to phase out their nuclear power programs. However, most countries operating nuclear power plants have continued to do so. Even in Europe, countries are looking to nuclear energy to reduce their reliance on coal. In Asia, major economies, including China and India, are expanding nuclear energy to help meet their growing power needs. More recently, Belarus and the United Arab Emirates brought their first nuclear power plants online. Meanwhile, Bangladesh and Turkey have begun construction of their first nuclear power plants, and in Egypt, nuclear power is well into its development phase. Globally, more than 50 reactors are under construction and 27 countries are actively considering, planning, or embarking on a nuclear power program as they realize nuclear energy's instrumental role in achieving netzero carbon emissions.

Existing nuclear power reactors still produce a third of the world's low-carbon electricity. More advanced reactors are in development. Small modular reactors hold the promise of decarbonizing transport and industry, as well as electricity. And they offer a possible solution for less-developed regions and smaller markets. In terms of nuclear waste technology, the deep geological repository in Onkalo, Finland, offers a long-term solution for safe disposal. Making use of these advances can only happen if people trust that they will not be harmed by the very technology capable of improving so many lives. An adaptive, global nuclear safety culture can help save not only those who may otherwise be affected by an accident, but also those harmed by the potential loss of an energy source that can decarbonize energy production at scale.

Chernobyl and Fukushima are somber anniversaries. But they also reflect the commitment of nations to work together to strengthen nuclear safety, thereby laying the foundations for nuclear energy to meet its potential in helping tackle climate change.

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