Lessons from a dark past
The shadow of past disasters still lingers over the nuclear energy industry and public concerns about its safety must be fully addressed, Professor Pan acknowledges.
He believes the world learned important lessons from Three Mile Island in 1979, Chernobyl in 1986, and Fukushima in 2011, and says safety enhancements after each of the disasters have made today’s nuclear power plants far safer.
People must be convinced the industry remains safe, however, and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has established a taskforce to review the proposed discharge of nuclear wastewater from the Fukushima plant amid concerns over safety and handling of nuclear waste and emissions.
While nuclear energy is a clean energy source, it produces radioactive waste that must be stored safely. Its sustainability has also been questioned given the limited supply of uranium needed for its production, and the mining and processing involved which can generate radioactive waste and hazardous chemicals.
However, advanced fuel recycling and reprocessing can not only reduce the amount of waste to be stored but also diminish the radioactivity of the remaining waste. Some advanced reactor designs in development could see reactors running on spent fuel in future.
Under this scenario, Professor Pan argues, “spent fuels will not be waste but potential fuel”.
By converting waste to fuel, uranium reserves could potentially sustain the operation of nuclear power plants for thousands or even tens of thousands of years, he argues, adding that the thorium cycle is another option that could make nuclear power sustainable.
Nuclear power has the potential to play a significant role in the global transition to carbon neutrality over the next 40 years, Professor Pan believes. With advances in fast breeder reactor technology, nuclear power could be a green oasis in an energy-starved world, he argues.