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Introduction (file A03)

by Ludwik Kowalski, Sylvie Leray and David Whittal

For better or worse the future of civilization depends on the consumption of energy. It has been projected that the amount of energy to be consumed in 2010, world-wide, will be between 34 and 45% higher than in 1992. This will have a significant impact on the environment; the energy-related emission of CO2 will increase by between 30 and 40% during the same time interval (1). The consequences of an excessive emission of CO2 into the atmosphere have been discussed elsewhere (2); the main reason for addressing this subject in a paper devoted to nuclear energy is to point out that no carbon dioxide is produced when nuclear electricity is generated. Dependence on fossil fuels, even with unlimited supplies, would have to be curtailed to prevent the negative effects of air pollution.

What are the alternatives? Solar energy and fusion reactors may be valuable long-term means of powering advanced technological societies but practical and economical ways of using these resources must first be demonstrated. It is highly unlikely that this will be done within the next two or three decades. Another alternative is to use fissile fuels, such as 235U. This approach has been practiced in many countries to produce electricity. For example, in France 75% of electricity is now generated using uranium as fuel; the corresponding numbers for Japan, U.S. and Canada are 31%, 20% and 19%, respectively (1). In 1994 the electric energy generated worldwide in 340 reactors was 1828 TWh (terawatt-hours) -- 24% of all electric energy.

The technology of today's nuclear reactors, devices in which heat is produced by converting uranium into "radioactive ashes," has often been criticized because of the problem of the disposal of radioactive wastes. Operational safety of reactors is also used as an argument against nuclear technology. People want reactors which are reliable today and which will not create problems tomorrow. The purpose of this paper is to show how these issues are addressed by scientists who are exploring ways of making nuclear technology safer and more acceptable. Detailed information on the subject is available in the form of proceedings from two recent conferences (3,4).

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