Atomic power plants: a thing of the past or the technology of tomorrow?

The explosion at an atomic power plant in Japan made Europeans think more about the future of atomic energy. However, during a space bridge between Moscow and Paris, Russian and French experts came to the conclusion that it is hardly possible to substitute atomic power plants with some other power-producing facilities in the foreseeable future – though some alternative projects are already being suggested.

True, Europe today can hardly imagine itself without atomic power plants. At present, there are over 140 such plants in EU countries in total, and 5 more in Switzerland. The good thing about atomic power plants is that they (if they do not explode, of course) are environment-friendly, while coal and gas power plants each year throw out millions of tons of carbon dioxide into the air. Today, the European Union tries to depend less on importing oil and gas, including those from Russia. 

“Since the early 1970s, 16% of the world’s energy are produced at atomic power plants,” Russian former deputy atomic energy minister Bulat Nigmatulin says. “That’s quite much, but it could be even more, if not for the accidents like the one in Chernobyl or the recent one in Fukushima. Each time when catastrophes of this kind happen, people start to look upon atomic power plants as upon a devilish invention. However, scientists say that, at least for the next 30 or 50 years, atomic power plants are the most promising way of producing electric energy. Still, the sad lessons of catastrophes teach us that we have to be more careful with atomic energy. Moreover, now, when it is money that rules the world, new power plants must not only be safe – they must be advantageous as well. If some other technologies turn out to be more profitable than atomic power plants, these technologies will develop faster. Each country decides for itself which is more profitable for it.”

In France, 77% of the country’s energy is produced by atomic power plants – much more than elsewhere in the world. Still, this can turn out to be a weak point for France – if (God forbid!) a big explosion happens at any French power plant, the people’s opinion will turn strongly against building new atomic power plants. 

“A too hasty decision can kill many good and promising projects,” says the Deputy Director of the International and Strategic Research Jean Pierre Maulny.

Director General of the Russian Foundation of Energy Security Konstantin Simonov is far more optimistic than the French scientist:

“The Fukushima explosion will by no means mark the end of atomic power plants,” he says. “Still, the world will surely strongly reconsider many points of its power energy’s strategy.” It is evident that for some time now, atomic power plants will be unpopular. However, Russia seems to know the way out. It can well stop building new atomic power plants for a while, for it has vast deposits of another source of energy – natural gas. If Germany – which is, however, hardly imaginable – closes down all its atomic power plants, 35 billion cubic meters of gas will be needed to compensate the energy losses. This is a little more than the “Nabucco” pipeline – the project which is so much cherished by Europeans – will be able to give.”

Well, it may be hardly imaginable that Germany may close down all its atomic reactors, but out of the 17 it has, it has already closed down 7, and out of these 7, 4 are said to be closed down for ever. In the end of March, Germany plans to close down another reactor. This will cut down Germany’s power production by nearly 40%. Switzerland has temporarily stopped the work of all its atomic reactors and is planning to abstain from atomic energy for at least one year. However, Spain (it has 8 reactors), as well as the Czech Republic and Turkey, plan to continue their atomic programs. Europe seems to be standing at the crossroads now. 

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