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1. Past, present and future of the use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes.

1.1.  Use of nuclear technology in the energy industry

1.1.1  Past of the use of nuclear technology in the energy industry

The first controlled chain reaction took place in an experimental reactor in Chicago in 1942. Leó Szilárd played an outstanding role in this achievement. The first electricity generating reactor  was the EBR-I (Experimental Breeder Reactor), which supplied power for the lighting of one of the buildings of the National Reactor Testing Station in Arco, Idaho, USA, and started operating on 20 December 1951. The EBR-I reactor was decommissioned in 1964. 

 
 Figure 1: The world’s first electricity-generating reactor on 20 December 1951, Arco, Idaho, USA [1]
 
 
 

On 27 June 1954, the first experimental nuclear power plant, which operated connected to the electricity grid, started its operation in Obninsk, the Soviet Union. The power plant had a net capacity of 5 megawatts.

 
 
 

Figure 2: The world’s first electricity-generating nuclear power plant connected to the grid 27 June 1954, Obninsk, Soviet Union [2]

 

The world’s first commercial nuclear power plant, Calder Hall Reactor 1, was inaugurated by Queen Elizabeth II in Windscale, England, on 17 October 1956. The power plant was a gas-cooled, graphite-moderated plant, had an installed net capacity of 50 MW, and operated until 2003.

 

 

Figure 3: The world’s first commercial electricity-generating nuclear power plant,
17 October 1956, Windscale, England [3]

 
 

1.1.2 Present use of nuclear technology in the energy industry

The history of electricity-generating nuclear power plants reaches back for more than 60 years. During this period, nuclear technology has been developing to an enormous extent.  

The nuclear power plant that also generated electricity for the first time in the world, the EBR-I reactor started up on 20 December 1951, was mainly used for experimental purposes, but from the 1,400 kilowatts of its thermal output, the power plant also produced 200 kilowatts of electrical output. Compared to this first reactor, the reactors with the highest net capacity currently operating in the world (Chooz-B-1 and Chooz-B-2 reactors, France) operate with 1,500 MW of electrical power, which is 7,500 times as much.  

In the nearly six decades which have elapsed since then, nuclear power plants have undergone tremendous development, in terms of both safety and efficiency. On the basis of 31 December 2012 figures, the more than 430 reactors operating all over the world meet nearly 14% of the total electricity demand on Earth. Since the mid-1950s, 2008 was the only year when no new unit was connected to the electricity system in the world.  

As electricity demand increased, newer and newer nuclear power plants were commissioned. Some of these power plants have already finished generating electricity, others have had their lifetime extended or their capacities increased and are still operational. The future of the use of nuclear energy lies in, besides the extension of the lifetime of the current power plants, the replacement of the capacity of shutdown power plants.  

At present, the vast majority of reactors operating in the world are Generation II water-cooled reactors. Their improvement is represented by the Generation III power plant type, which is starting to become widespread at present. However, the basic concept has not changed from the point of view of reactor physics: thermal neutrons cause fission in water-cooled reactors. The biggest difference between the two generations is safety. The reason for this is that safety systems have been multiplied, because events that had not been taken into consideration previously due to their low probability have also been included in the design basis.  

 

1.1.2.1 Operational nuclear power plants and reactors in the world

On the basis of the up-to-date reactor database of the International Atomic Energy Agency, there are 437 operational commercial nuclear power plant reactors in total are oprational on 185 different sites in 30 countries of the world, with a total net installed capacity of about 374,500 MW. 

 


Figure 4: Distribution of operational nuclear reactors in the world by country, 31 August 2014
View enlarged picture​
(Source: iaea.org)

 


Figure 5: Total net electrical capacity of nuclear reactors operating in individual countries (MW) 31 August 2014
View enlarged picture​
(Source: iaea.org)

 

These nuclear power plants continuously cover nearly 14% of the electricity output in the word as reliable base load power plants [1]. Electricity generated by nuclear power plants meets more than 25% of national electricity demand in 13 countries. Its share is more than 73% in France and the proportion is higher than 40% in Belgium, Slovakia, Hungary, Ukraine and Sweden.


Figure 6: Share of nuclear-based electricity production in individual countries in 2013
View enlarged picture​
(Source: iaea.org)

 

The majority of nuclear reactors operating in the world, such as the Paks Nuclear Power Plant, are Pressurised Water Reactors (PWR). Boiling Water Reactors (BWR) have become widespread mostly in the United States and Japan. The most typical of the Pressurised Heavy Water Reactors (PHWR), the CANDU reactors, are dominant in India and Canada. Gas-cooled Reactors (GCR) are used only in the United Kingdom, while Light Water-cooled, Graphite-moderated Reactors (LWGR) are used only in Russia.

 

 


Figure 7: Distribution of operational reactors by type on 31 August 2014
View enlarged picture​
(Source: iaea.org​)

 

In addition to nuclear power plant reactors, about 240 research reactors operate in 56 countries in total, and an additional 180 reactors operate in nuclear-powered ships and submarines. 

 


Figure 8: Distribution of reactor types by country on 31 December 2013
View enlarged picture​
(Source: IAEA, Nuclear Power Reactors in the World, Reference Data Series No. 2, 2014 Edition, TABLE 2. TYPE AND NET ELECTRICAL POWER OF REACTORS CONNECTED TO THE GRID, 31 DEC. 2013)

 

Power upgrade of nuclear power plants

Due to the development of nuclear technology over recent decades, it has become possible to increase the efficiency of operational reactors and, together with that, their net electrical power, in compliance with the safety limits. The capacities of reactors operating in the United States were increased by more than 7,000 MW in nearly 150 cases. In addition, power upgrades have also been carried out in Finland and Spain. The extent of capacity increase planned at nuclear power plants in Russia may reach up to 7% of the capacity of reactors operating there. 

Such power-upgrade modifications have been carried out on the four reactors of the Paks Nuclear Power Plant, too, by which the gross electrical power of the individual reactors could be increased from 440 MW to 500 MW in two steps, in compliance with the most stringent safety regulations.

 

Nuclear power plants under construction 

On the basis of the up-to-date reactor database of the International Atomic Energy Agency, 70 new nuclear power plant reactors with a total net electrical capacity of more than 66,000 MW were being constructed in 16 countries of the world in October 2014. It is not surprising that the vast majority of the reactors currently being constructed are in the Asian region, trying to meet the enormous energy demand appearing there. 

 


Figure 9: Distribution of the net electrical capacity and number of reactors under construction by country on 1 September 2014
View enlarged picture​
(Source: iaea.org)

The vast majority of the reactors under construction, 59, are Pressurised Water Reactors (PWR), four are Pressurised Heavy Water Reactors (PHWR), four are Boiling Water Reactors (BWR), two are Fast Breeding Reactors (FBR) and only one is a High Temperature Gas-cooled Reactor (HTGR).

 

Planned nuclear power plant projects

On the basis of the 2014 Report of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the planned implementation of 92 reactors in total could be projected on 31 December 2013, with a total net electrical capacity of about 95,000 MW. Of the planned reactors, 78 are Pressurised Water Reactors (PWR), nine are Boiling Water Reactors (BWR) and only five are Fast Breeding Reactors (FBR). 

 


Figure 10: Distribution of planned nuclear projects by country on 31 December 2013
View enlarged picture​
(Source: IAEA, Nuclear Power Reactors in the World, Reference Data Series No. 2, 2014 Edition, TABLE 12. REACTORS PLANNED FOR CONSTRUCTION AS KNOWN ON 31 DEC. 2013​)

 

[1] Base load power plant. A power plant connected to the electricity system, which generates electricity at an even load in accordance with average consumption and/or at a high number of hours of utilisation over the year.

 

1.1.2.2 Share of nuclear energy in the Hungarian energy industry

There are nuclear power plants in the electricity generation sector in most developed countries. Nuclear power plants have a number of advantages over other producers in the system: they generate electricity predictably, in a plannable way; moreover, they do so at a competitive price. This is one of the cleanest energy generation methods, since production does not result in the emission of carbon dioxide, dust, ash, smoke or other pollutants. 

During the commissioning of the units of the Paks Nuclear Power Plant (between 1982 and 1987), their share in electricity production in Hungary continuously increased, then became constant later. In 2013 the Paks Nuclear Power Plant set an output record, contributing to electricity production in Hungary by more than 50 per cent. 

The Paks Nuclear Power Plant is the largest electricity generating plant in Hungary; its gross installed electrical capacity is 500 MW per unit, 2,000 MW in total. The Paks Nuclear Power Plant is clearly a dominant player in electricity production in Hungary.

 

1.1.3 Future of the nuclear energy industry 

The fact that electricity can be generated with nuclear power plants without carbon dioxide emissions that cause global warming favours the future use of nuclear energy for energy production purposes. The development of Generation IV reactors is currently underway, which is driven by a more efficient use of fuel. Using that, instead of the currently dominant uranium-235 isotope, the uranium-238 isotope or thorium, which is considerably more abundant in nature, could be utilised in a higher proportion. Using Generation IV reactors,  spent fuel could also be further utilised, thus the quantity of waste that needs to be stored for long periods could be reduced by producing additional energy. In Generation IV reactors, the spent fuel assemblies of previous Generation II and III reactors could be used, which would also have the advantage that the storage of the spent fuel assemblies had to be ensured only for a shorter period. Such a programme developing a Generation IV reactor is the ALLEGRO project, which is aimed at constructing a demonstration reactor. Hungary is playing an important role in the project. 

The possibility of thermonuclear power plants is considered as a potential energy source for our century; however, their implementation still requires a lot of engineering issues to be resolved.

Experiments are carried out for developing smaller, modular units, with which independent energy supply to remote areas cut off from main transmission lines could also be ensured.

 

1.2 Use of radioactive materials for non-energy purposes

Radioactive materials are used in a number of areas of life: for medical diagnostics and interventions, industrial disinfection, material testing.   

Few people know, but radioactive substances are also present in our everyday lives – we can encounter them in industry, medical science and historical research alike. Below a few interesting applications are mentioned, though they are not meant to be exhaustive.

The most widespread use of radiating substances is what is called radiological or non-destructive materials testing applied in industry. The basic principle of the test is that, when passing through an object tested, the intensity of X-ray or gamma radiation changes depending on the thickness irradiated, from which potential defects (cavities or cracks) in the material can be inferred.

We can also find, for example, a slight amount of alpha particles in simple smoke detectors, which are able to be absorbed in the smoke and we can be alerted to a possible fire through the detection of that. 

In agriculture, radioactive radiation may be used, for example, for preventing the germination of potatoes and for the genetic modification of various plants, for breeding specimens with higher yields and resistance. 

In the food industry, they are used for the destruction of microorganisms and the prevention of germination. As early as 1993, 50 food irradiation stations operated all over the world, with 500,000 tonnes of irradiated food per year. 

In addition, it is an interesting application that insects sterilised by radiation are released into the environment in order to prevent epidemics, thereby reducing the growth of harmful insect populations. With this method, mosquitoes spreading malaria and causing the death of several million people annually have been almost eradicated in some African countries.  

Radioactivity is used for medical purposes in a variety of ways; we can encounter radioactive substances in the case of tracing, imaging and laboratory analyses, and irradiation equipment and radiomedicines in the case of therapies. Disposable medical devices can also be sterilised by applying radioactive radiation. More than 120,000 medical examinations are carried out successfully in Hungary annually using nuclear technology, such as CT (computer tomography), PET CT (positron emission tomography) or conventional X-ray. 

In addition, radioactive technologies are also used for dating archaeological finds (what is called the C14 test) and in the analysis of their composition (neutron activation analysis). 

Radioactive substances are also used in basic physical research (during research on, and detection of, elementary particles) and in research on cosmic radiation. 

Perhaps even less known is the radioisotope thermoelectric generator, a result of development activities aimed at supplying power to sea navigation equipment like lighthouses and space technology devices by harnessing the heat released by the natural decay of radioactive isotopes.

 

 

 

 

 

 
 
 
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