The Future of Nuclear Energy

by Frank Deconinck

The future of nuclear-energy looks ever brighter. Indeed, more and more countries are expressing their interest in nuclear, and the recent announcement by the British government will certainly give an extra boost to hesitating governments. Is it correct, in this context, to speak about a "nuclear renaissance"? In my opinion, not entirely.

It is certainly true that no new plants have been built in the US or in Western Europe for the last 20 years and that several countries announced their intention to phase out nuclear. In Eastern Europe, the situation had already become less anti-nuclear. The fact that there was no new build, was not so much due to internally generated political decisions, but rather was imposed by the EC, or because of economical reasons. Further east, nuclear continued to be developed at a high pace. For us to speak about the nuclear renaissance, therefore, seems much too self-centred.

A second reason is that, in Europe, we know what "renaissance" means. Not the American 'born again' concept: nuclear was never dead! Rather, nuclear was hibernating in our countries and it is now slowly waking up again (climate change?). In Europe, the 'Renaissance' stands for the development of education and research after the dark Middle Ages. This ame about first through the study of the Greek classical authors, and then through our own scientific discoveries. An emblematic figure here is Leonardo da Vinci. Painter, engineer, scientist, philosopher, ... a genius with a global view on everything he studied. The same global approach remained until the start of the 19th century and the age of industrialisation: Joseph Fourier was first a mathematician then physicist who first described greenhouse gasses then he was also an Egyptologist working for Napoleon and an administrator in the Isère department in France.

Since the start of the industrial world, enormous progress has been achieved in science and technology, but the gap between disciplines has been widening steadily. Ever higher ivory towers were built in universities and interaction with society was gradually lost. During the twentieth century nuclear did not escape this trend. Nuclear scientists were often bound to secrecy, and most of them did not consider it as their duty to reach out to society.

Recently, there has been a fundamental change going on: nuclear has become more and more open and transparent, and there is a growing conscience that nuclear is not only about technology, but that human and societal aspects are also essential and have to be integrated in all projects. This is a real break with the past and, in my opinion, a very positive evolution that may well be the start of the real 'nuclear renaissance'.


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