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Environmentally sound use of nuclear energy
 
An environmentally aware lifestyle is being given an increasingly emphasised role in human activities in our modern age. Maintaining our environmental values and the long-term sustainability of technological development are instinctive human needs. However, the conscious assumption of responsibility and commitment to the cause of environmental protection are relatively recent forms of behaviour.
Due to the very fast pace of industrial and agricultural development, environmental pollution emerged at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution (it is enough to think of the River Thames in London, the rich biota of which was eradicated by industrial-scale pollution from the mid-19th century for nearly one hundred years). Then environmental protection appeared with the aim of mitigating its impacts.
Environmental consciousness manifests itself mostly in acts; for example, when decisions are made at the individual or community level whereby, in a given case, during the implementation of actions with local and regional impacts, environmental impacts and aspects are also considered. Good examples of this could be selective waste collection in the field of waste management and the modernisation of the heat insulation of residential buildings in the field of energy conservation.
 
 

Conventional power plants

The question is rightfully asked in connection with energy production: what environmental consequences may electricity generation have? Well, electricity is mostly produced by power plants fired by coal, oil or natural gas. The general name for these is energy sources: these materials were produced from terrestrial plant residues and the organic residues or organisms sinking to the depths of ancient seas over millions of years.
Thus the electricity available in residential buildings and homes, which can be used for heating, lighting or even for the recharging of batteries in electricity-powered cars, are only virtually ‘green’ energy. Fossil energy sources are not renewed, their production required several millions of years, while their consumption is increasing at a very fast pace. This also means that the use of fossil, non-renewable energy sources is not sustainable even in the relatively short run. During the production of energy, harmful substances are produced from fossil fuel, which are responsible, among other things, for the warming of the Earth’s atmosphere (e.g. carbon dioxide) and the development of acid rain (e.g. sulphur dioxide and sulphur trioxide).
 
 
Alternative energy sources
 
Alternative solutions do exist, but the greatest disadvantage of, for example, solar and wind energy is that, due to the uncertainty of their availability, the energy supply to a country cannot be based on them – electricity is also needed at night and in calm weather, not to mention the fact that the production of solar panels and batteries involves technologies that considerably pollute and exploit the environment, among other things because of the mining of rare heavy metals and the production of large quantities of production wastes and hazardous wastes after they are used.
Therefore, we have a difficult task if we aim to act in an environmentally aware way in relation to our energy use. The generation of electricity by nuclear power plants is a well-balanced technology from the point of view of loading the environment; thus, as opposed to conventional methods, it is a much more environmentally safe method.
 
 
Nuclear energy
 
During the operation of nuclear power plants, an appropriate environmentally sound cooling solution and the reduction of the temperature of the heated coolant must be provided. Worldwide, the use of freshwater and the cooling tower solution are the two most widespread technical solutions. In Hungary’s case, cooling is provided by water abstracted from, and returned to, the Danube. In order to preserve the condition and biota of the recipient medium in an unchanged form, a standard laid down in a separate order (Decree No. 15/2001 [VI.6.] KöM) was set for heat emissions, which is guaranteed by design based on an environmental impact assessment and heat transport analyses providing grounds for it. In accordance with this order, the difference between the temperatures of the discharged water and the recipient water may not be higher than 11°C or, if the temperature of the recipient water is lower than +4°C, may not be higher than 14°C, and the temperature of the recipient water may not exceed 30°C at any point of the section calculated 500 m downstream of the point of discharge.
 
During the production of nuclear energy, we cannot talk about air pollution. Very small specific quantities of other pollutants are produced; however, they are disposed of in safe repositories. A national company (Radioactive Waste Management Non-profit Limited Liability Company [RHK Kft.] owned 100% by the State) has been established for the management of the secondary raw materials and non-recyclable materials produced. Thus, similarly to European and other countries using nuclear energy, Hungary also ensures the comprehensive management of the environmental impacts of nuclear energy. The role of nuclear power plants in climate protection is also important, since they generate electricity without producing greenhouse gases. Due to this, they do not contribute to the development of extreme climatic conditions arising as an effect of climate change, which may force the Earth’s biota to undergo major adaptation in the coming decades. In fact, by replacing environmentally polluting coal-, diesel oil- or gas-fired power plants, they explicitly reduce it. It is in Hungary’s national interest to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and this is also prescribed by the EU for its Member States.
 
Non-recyclable materials are also produced during the use of nuclear energy and their management must be ensured. In Hungary, the above-mentioned RHK Kft. is engaged in the management of the wastes of the nuclear power plant in a way that meets the most advanced requirements. The disposal of radioactive wastes meets the Hungarian and international statutory regulations and requirements in every respect. You can read more about this on the www.rhk.hu website.

 

The future of nuclear energy
 
The future of the use of nuclear energy, as we see it, can be assessed on the basis of a highly complex system of criteria. If, on the basis of signs already appearing, we accept that mankind is currently living in the initial period of an energy crisis, we must urgently discover what can replace the energy sources that will have been used up within barely a few hundred years. Nuclear energy must form part of a comprehensive energy system, which coordinates human activities with a sustainable environment. Since the fuel of currently operational reactors, uranium, is also available in finite quantities, the new technologies will utilise used fuel assemblies stored currently as spent fuel, and in addition to uranium will also use thorium as fuel, which – in contrast – is available on Earth in huge quantities. Energy economy offers a cost efficient, but only temporary solution to the world’s energy hunger: after a while, the capital requirement of the economy measures will exceed the costs of energy production, thus it will become ineffective from an economic point of view.
 
Consequently, the future necessarily lies in increasing the efficiency of energy production and the development (improvement of safety equipment and rendering the use of fuel more efficient) and putting to use of new technologies. Such a technology is the use of fusion energy, where instead of the fission of atoms, their fusion provides energy. From a scientific point of view, fusion can be carried out; however, in practice there are still a lot of issues to be resolved before the power of fusion can be put to work. The results of the international TOKAMAK reactor experiments (the acronym comes from the Russian expression ‘toroidalnaya kamera v magnitnaya katushka’, which can be translated as ‘toroidal chamber in a magnetic coil’) show that fusing reactors can be used as an economical energy source in the future. Hybrid (fusion and fission) reactors may represent another technological solution, where the neutrons produced during fusion provide the quantity of neutrons required for nuclear fission. Electrical breeding is also a currently emerging technological solution; its essence is that by means of an accelerator, an inactive material is bombarded by elementary particles, thus they are converted into a fissile material which can be used as fuel in nuclear reactors. Applying new generation chemical operations, not only uranium and plutonium can be separated in the future from the final product of energy production, but we will also be able to separate other long-life isotopes. With this, the quantity of wastes can be drastically reduced and the space requirement of waste repositories will also decrease.
 
In summary, nuclear energy must play an important role in the energy mix; however, keeping it under strict control must be continued. The safety regulations, waste management issues and the entire fuel cycle must be regulated through the supervisory activities of international organisations and with the help of the national structure. If we succeed in implementing these, nuclear energy can be part of our future in a sustainable way and we can exploit all opportunities available in it to meet our energy demand.

 

 
 
 
 
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