A new chapter for nuclear power

30 June 2022

Since the very start of the nuclear power industry, Nuclear Engineering International has been alongside every step of the way.

It was in 1956 that the landmark Clean Air Act was introduced in the UK. The move came in response to an environmental crisis. Sulphur produced by burning thousands of tonnes of coal across London had for years given the notorious city smogs a ghastly yellow-greenish tinge. It was described as walking through ‘pea soup’ but that soup had caused the deaths of thousands of people. Something needed to be done.

At the same time, hundreds of miles away from London, an age of optimism was dawning with the commissioning of Calder Hall. It was a new technology that was seen as a key part of both the solution to air pollution and a bright future full of abundant clean energy. Calder Hall was, of course, the world’s first nuclear power station. With its four Magnox reactors supplying the national grid and rated at just 240MW, Calder Hall nonetheless marked the birth of what is today a huge global industry.

Coinciding with the birth of the nuclear industry, 1956 was notable for a number of other remarkable firsts. The first working trans-Atlantic telephone cable was installed, Elvis had his first hit with Heartbreak Hotel... and Nuclear Engineering International was first published.

In the nearly 70 years since that first edition there’s been a lot of water under the bridge and much has changed. Today, we can place trans-Atlantic video calls in an instant via satellite, Elvis has definitely left the building, and Calder Hall has long been demolished. But despite the dramatic progress achieved over the years, today we face an even bigger environmental crisis than the shocking smogs of the 1950s. It’s not sulphur and soot this time but another product of fossil fuels – carbon dioxide. Again though, nuclear can provide the answers. The ability of nuclear power to produce secure and reliable low-carbon energy is attracting new interest, investment and a reappraisal of this tried and tested technology that still has so much to offer. There’s been tangible development here and on page 23 of this edition we take a look at the latest nations to work on building nuclear generation.

Like any industry, nuclear power has also had to weather many storms over the years and seem some dark events. Disasters like those at Chornobyl [Ukrainian spelling] and Fukushima-Daiichi still loom large across the industry and the wider world even decades later. Indeed, we explore another troubling chapter for the nuclear industry in this issue with a look at the military invasion of Ukraine and the implications for nuclear safety following the occupation of Zaporizhzhia, Europe’s largest nuclear power station.

But over the years there’s been much light too. Nuclear power has delivered billions of MWh to homes and businesses across the world, achieved breakthroughs in agricultural productivity, medical science and space travel.

And now there’s a new generation of nuclear technology. Small modular reactors and advanced reactors are set to reinvigorate the industry with low-cost serial manufacturing and new applications like hydrogen production. The conversation and development of fusion is finally moving towards commercial application, and there is progress on everything from advanced manufacturing, waste treatment, through life extension, digitalisation and decommissioning.

It’s not all rosy of course and many challenges remain but it is, nonetheless, a tremendously exciting time to join the industry. Just as in 1956, nuclear power is a sector that is able to address pressing environmental challenges and it’s an industry that is full of optimism, brimming with engineering talent, and buoyed with the hope that the long-promised nuclear renaissance is at last happening now.

By David Appleyard, Editor, Nuclear Engineering International

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