Frequently Asked Questions
How safe is nuclear energy?
The nuclear energy chain (from extracting to storing waste) is extremely safe.
However strange it sounds, accidents like the one in Chernobyl in 1986 contributed to this. Following this catastrophe, more stringent international legislation and control were introduced. At national level too, stringent demands are imposed on the nuclear industry. The Dutch nuclear plant, for example, is one of the safest 25% in the world.
Western nuclear plants are continuously being improved, while new ones are built as safely as possible. Often, 'passive safe' safety systems are used, which work with gravity (which always works). Many systems are duplicated or triplicated and work in extreme conditions and without human operation. An accident can occur in a nuclear plant, but it will always be possible to restore it to a safe condition.
In the western world, there is international monitoring and cooperation with respect to safety. Knowledge and new insights are published and thus shared. In the Netherlands, the Authority for Nuclear Safety and Radiation Protection (ANVS), which is part of the Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management, constantly monitors the situation. Parliament is informed about the safety situation.
Is there already a solution for radioactive waste?
Wherever people work with radioactive substances – medical, research, industry and electricity production – radioactive waste is produced. The Central Organisation for Radioactive Waste (COVRA) was founded in 1982 and is the company that practically implements the solution for Dutch radioactive waste. The basis for the solution is the fact that radioactive substances naturally lose their risk factor. By emitting radiation, a radioactive substance decays, and the risk disappears. Radioactive waste must therefore be stored in a place where the radiation can do no harm, and it must be removed from the living environment until the radioactivity has disappeared. All over the world, this is done in two steps: first storage above ground and then disposal deep underground. In the province of Zeeland, the COVRA has the facilities to safely manage all types of radioactive waste for a period of at least 100 years. However, waste management does not stop after 100 years. Even now, financial provisions are being made and the necessary technology developed for the next step in radioactive waste management: final disposal. The third national research programme relating to the final disposal of radioactive waste (OPERA) is part of that.
Is there enough uranium in the world?
Uranium is not a scarce material. There is almost the same quantity of uranium on Earth as tin or lead. Every two years, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna and the Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA) in Paris publish the 'Uranium Red Book'. This contains an updated overview of the stocks and use of uranium. Here the stocks are linked to the costs required to extract the uranium. Over 7 million tons of uranium have been found, 5.3 million tons of which can be extracted with the current market price. Every year, all the nuclear plants together use around 64,000 tons, so we have enough for around the next eighty years.
When new plants are built in the future, uranium will become scarcer and the price will rise. It will then become attractive for mining companies to invest in the exploration of new stocks, and smaller stocks can still be accessed efficiently. Incidentally, the price of uranium has very little impact on the costs of nuclear power, which is mainly determined by the construction costs of the nuclear plant itself.
Although there is still enough uranium, we must obviously use it sparingly. And that's the case. There is a general trend in nuclear plants to obtain increasing amounts of energy from the same amount of uranium. Furthermore, uranium that was once reserved for military purposes is now being converted so that it can generate energy in nuclear plants. Recycled uranium is also used as well as alternative fuels in nuclear plants. An example of this is MOX nuclear fuel, which consists of recycled uranium and plutonium.
Can an atomic bomb be made with nuclear fuel from a nuclear plant?
Globally, we have agreed to only use low-enriched uranium in nuclear plants, with around 5 percent fissile atoms. It is impossible to use this to make an atomic bomb. To do so, you would need dozens of percent fissile atoms in your nuclear fuel.
Conversely: redundant nuclear weapons can be used to make reactor fuel. Following the signing of global disarmament treaties, the number of nuclear weapons has fallen. Part of these treaties is the ‘down-blending' from 'weapon-grade material'. This means that high-enriched material from nuclear weapons is mixed with depleted uranium to up to 4-5%. As nuclear fuel, this can also be used to generate electricity in a nuclear plant. This uranium is no longer suitable for nuclear weapons.
What are the disadvantages of nuclear energy?
All sources for generating electricity have disadvantages, and the same applies to nuclear energy. One of these is the creation of radioactive waste. This waste must not get into the environment and is dangerous for a long time. In technical terms, there are good solutions for nuclear waste.
However, it is difficult for people to accept that this waste stays radioactive for so long. Western nuclear plants take full responsibility for all their waste substances. For example, the storage of radioactive waste and the demolishing of the nuclear plant after use is included in the costs. Stringent rules govern the treatment and safe storage of the waste.
What is the difference between nuclear fusion and nuclear fission?
In fission, an atom disintegrates and creates heat and waste. In nuclear fusion, two atoms 'fuse' together and create extra energy and very little waste. Fusion therefore has advantages. A fusion reactor is currently being built in France to gain experience in this.