Editorial Physics World  April 2017

The caveats of nuclear energy

Progress on inertial-confinement fusion. (Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory)

“Well, would you want to live near a nuclear power station?”

The question came from my father-in-law, and my answer amounted to “Yes, but”. Yes, but I’d want the reactors to be well designed, well built and well managed. Yes, but any waste stored on-site would need to be kept safe and secure. Yes, but if I lived in an area prone to tsunamis or earthquakes, I might reconsider. And so the argument went, until eventually I conceded that although I’d rather live near a nuclear power station than a coal-fired one, my real preference would be for a solar or wind farm – not least because having one of them for a neighbour would require me to live someplace sunny or scenic.

In some ways this Physics World focus issue on nuclear energy is a tour of all those “yes, buts”. The design and safe operation of reactors are addressed in an article about near-term plans for new power stations, and also in a piece that explains how radiation-induced defects in reactor components can be understood and modelled. Waste management is the focus of an interview with Charles McCombie, who has spent his career working on ways of keeping spent fuel safe for – well, pretty much forever. Historian Kate Brown’s piece on the health effects of the Chernobyl disaster is a sobering reminder of what can happen when things go wrong, while Gail Marcus’ analysis of the industry’s “green” credentials acknowledges that all energy sources – even renewable ones like wind and sunlight – come with an environmental cost. Finally, articles about intellectual property and small modular reactors (presented as the “start-up story” of NuScale, a modular-reactor firm based in the US) address the need for new ideas in an industry that will soon enter its eighth decade.

Speaking of new ideas, though, in researching this issue, I’ve added one more “yes, but” to my list. Would I want to live near a nuclear power station? Yes – but I’d like it to run on fusion, not fission. It’s still a long way off, as a progress report on inertial confinement fusion makes clear, but some day, I hope we will have that option.

If you’d like to share your own list of nuclear “yes, buts”, or if you have any other comments on this issue, you can reach us at pwld@iop.org.

Margaret Harris, Industry Editor