THE WORLD WILL NOT DO
WITHOUT NUCLEAR POWER ENGINEERING
(Academician Yevgeny Velikhov, President of the Kurchatov Institute)
I am an optimist,
and I don’t think that natural energy resources will be depleted anytime soon.
At any rate, oil and gas rather than nuclear power will continue to be the main
source of energy, which will be sufficient to ensure the world’s steady
development until the middle of this century.
In addition, we
still have coal. As for atomic power engineering, its role during this period
will be to stabilize the world’s energy situation, which appears to be
possess a prevailing amount of natural resources due to their uneven
distribution in the world. For this reason, the energy issue is intertwined with
politics, and sometimes becomes a trump card in a political game. Nuclear power
engineering is capable of reassuring all those who are not certain about having
sufficient energy today and tomorrow. There is no doubt, that it is the only
source of energy which can ensure the world’s steady development in the
foreseeable future. Today, this fact is understood not only by physicists, but
also by politicians, who have to accept it as an axiom.
In the modern world
people are actively striving to improve the quality of life, but better
amenities require a great deal of energy. Several billion people, whom the
nations of the golden billion only recently considered poor and an object of
charity, are today consuming as much energy as they need. This allows them to
achieve fast economic progress. Many of them (China, Korea, India, Malaysia, and
others) are reaching the level of the world’s leaders. New powerful consumers
are emerging on the energy market.
that all known sources of energy are at the service of people, and have a role
to play in their lives. Although nuclear power will be moving to the fore, I do
not rule out that mankind will develop alternative sources of energy as well.
The energy of the sun, wind, tides, and biomass will find a niche. The use of
these energy carriers is justified and they harmoniously supplement each other.
power engineering has indisputable advantages over alternative sources of
energy. For instance, it takes many echelons to transport coal, but it can be
easily replaced with several kilos of uranium.
engineering will not only relieve transport of a titanic burden, but will also
give an addition reserve of fuel. Oil and gas prices keep growing, and it is
clear that they are not going to fall. This situation may cause a collapse of
the economy or of individual industries. In the United States, for one, the
price of gas is so high that its chemical industry is losing its ability to
compete on the world market. Other countries are faced with similar problems as
well. Nuclear power engineering will be the only energy alternative in this
industry is very complicated, and requires huge investment and proper security,
it is still the best option in the final count. In the European part of Russia
it makes more sense to build nuclear power stations than gas ones. Gas may be
used more rationally in the chemical industry, or sold abroad at a good price,
which will contribute to the national budget. Replacement of gas with nuclear
energy is a strategic cause for Russia.
Today, Russia is at
the world’s average level in the use of nuclear energy. Its contribution to
the common energy pot averages 17%-18% (up to 30% in the European part of the
country). If we look three or four decades ahead in order to evaluate Russia’s
nuclear energy requirements, we will see that its share should be increased by
at least 25%, if not more.
Russia is not the
only country to recognize the value of nuclear power engineering. The French
nuclear power plants account today for up to 80% of national energy consumption.
In his recent State of the Union Address President Bush spoke about the need to
replace non-renewable energy sources with nuclear energy. Supplies of cheap
Russian gas to Europe put a certain restraint on the development of nuclear
power engineering. Germany was even considering giving it up altogether. But now
everything is changing. Rational Europeans have realized that nuclear power
engineering is indispensable. As for India and China, it is difficult even to
imagine these giants making progress without such a powerful source of energy.
True, they are rich
in coal (for the time being!). But the burning of coal generates large amounts
of carbon dioxide, which is fraught with unpredictable climatic changes, for
instance, accelerated global warming. There is another problem: coal is linked
to the appearance of aerosols, which are the main source of lung cancer. I do
not mean to say that coal mining has no future. People will learn to burn coal
without these side effects, just as they have coped with a number of problems in
nuclear power engineering. I think that today the latter industry has left
others far behind in terms of security and ecology. As for the negative impact
on the climate and environment, it can well compete with any other power
generation, including solar and wind energy.
The advantage of
nuclear power engineering is that it is not accompanied by hothouse emissions or
pollution of the atmosphere. The 1986 technogenic Chernobyl disaster slowed down
the advance of nuclear power engineering, and the public lost interest and trust
in it. But the progressing market difficulties with hydrocarbons have compelled
the world to turn to nuclear power engineering once again. Today, many
countries, Russia among them, have placed their bets on this industry.
By the middle of
the century we physicists are hoping to see rapid development of another, more
progressive type of nuclear power engineering – thermonuclear synthesis. Let
me remind you that all life on Earth is a stream of solar energy of
thermonuclear origin. Will thermonuclear energy meet mankind’s requirements?
Of course, there is no magic wand, which would make energy sources last forever.
But thermonuclear energy is very promising. It is not for nothing that it is
called the Sun of the Earth (150 million degrees inside the reactor). For the
time being this type of energy is very expensive, and commercially unviable.
Experts will have to solve a whole package of scientific problems, and upgrade a
number of technologies in order to make the thermonuclear power plant
competitive with other energy sources.
in the unique project – Europe, Japan, Russia, the U.S., China, Korea, and
India have agreed to invest five billion dollars into the construction of a
thermonuclear experimental reactor (ITER – Russian acronym), and use for this
purpose their intellectual resources, industrial capacities, and technologies.
The site for it has already been chosen -- Cadarache in Provence, France. When
will this project be implemented? If we start building it by a well-orchestrated
effort this year, its construction will be completed in ten years. Another five
years will be spent on designing an electric power station, and another 20 years
on extensive research. The fast track suggested by Tony Blair’s advisor Sir
David King, is aimed at building the first thermonuclear electric station by
2030. If this experience succeeds, the world will receive very powerful sources
of energy -- thermonuclear electric stations. This will be an effective cure for
the headache caused by the energy problem for a long time to come.
ITER’s history is
an amusing illustration of how politicians have advanced the cause of nuclear
power engineering. A perfect balance of mutual interests has taken shape:
politicians have no choice but to vote for atomic power engineering, whereas its
destiny largely depends on the political will of governments. It is no secret
that on the one hand, politicians express national interests, whereas on the
other hand, they are speaking for themselves with an eye to elections, populist
motives, personal prestige and ambitions. Decision on the ITER project was a
strictly political one, and credit for it goes to the political leaders. In
1985, Russian physicists convinced the then President Mikhail Gorbachev of the
advantages of thermonuclear energy. In turn, he had a fruitful discussion with
Francois Mitterand, who appeared to be well versed in the subject and took it
further by convincing U.S. President Ronald Reagan of its benefits. As a result,
an agreement on ITER was signed the same year in Geneva.
This is not the end
of the story. Credit for the choice of the site in France goes to another French
President, Jacques Chirac, who put huge pressure on other participants.
Moreover, Chirac managed to persuade Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi,
who was very enthusiastic about Japan hosting ITER. He finally gave in, but not
for nothing. The Japanese were happy about a brilliant idea suggested by Russia
– to start designing a commercial thermonuclear power station in Japan on a
par with the experimental ITER project in France. This idea received universal
pressure from his domestic opponents, President Bill Clinton was forced to
withdraw from the ITER project. But the new President, George W. Bush, made a
rational decision on the return to the project. He even urged the nation to view
ITER as a priority of American energy policy of the future. Russian President
Vladimir Putin called on the world to give credit to nuclear power engineering
at the Millennium Summit in New York in 2000. Thank God, today’s world compels
politicians to think about the future. -0-