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The Global Energy Prize annually honors outstanding achievements in energy research and technology from around the world that are helping address the world’s various and pressing energy challenges.

Carlo Rubbia: Lack of major changes and developments a handicap for nuclear power

The main problem with nuclear power today is the recycling of nuclear waste. To solve this problem, it is necessary to encourage the use of thorium instead of uranium. An even bigger challenge for the industry is the lack of new developments that would allow nuclear power to move forward, said Carlo Rubbia, the Global Energy Prize laureate and Nobel Prize winner in physics, in an interview with the Global Energy Association.

What challenges are currently facing nuclear power sector? In what direction can the industry develop in the future?

Carlo Rubbia. A main and so far unsolved problem is the presence of the huge nuclear waste presently remaining in the environment for up to millions of years. Several countries have decided to terminate prematurely nuclear energy.  Industry may find it difficult to maintain even the present fraction of the world’s energy in the nuclear sector.

Does the shortage of uranium reserves continue to be a constraint on the future development of the industry?

Carlo Rubbia. At least at the present level of a few percent of the world’s energy production, the uranium reserves appear adequate for the industry’s developments.  However, problems on shortage of reserves may arise in case nuclear power might eventually acquire in the future a much larger fraction of the energy production.  However, in my view, this is a very unlikely possibility.

How competitive is nuclear power with renewables at this stage? What opportunities exist to improve the efficiency of nuclear power plants?

Carlo Rubbia. Renewables are generally more costly than nuclear and unavailable for fractions of time.  Most likely, renewables will remain more costly also in the future.  However, they produce no long term waste.  The promising thorium nuclear alternative, replacing uranium should be encouraged since it does considerably reduce the duration of the surviving waste.

Previously, one of the main negative factors in development of nuclear power was the unsafe operation of nuclear power plants and the problems of nuclear waste disposal. Have these problems been solved in recent years? How can your waste management practices be applied to industry on a large scale?

K. Rubbia. The safety in the operation of the more recent nuclear plants has been greatly improved.  However, the practice of a subsequent nuclear disposal still proves to be problematic. Again, thorium is an alternative solution and new techniques to “incinerate” at least the the bulk of the waste should be pursued.

What are the opportunities for expanding the geography of nuclear power plant construction? How promising are small nuclear power plants and floating power plants, and can they become drivers for industry development?

Carlo Rubbia. Small nuclear power plants and floating power plants are interesting developments especially for remote areas but, in my view, they cannot compete with the bulk of nuclear energy production by large scale reactors.

Modern nuclear physics has focused on identifying more and more new forms of matter and particles. This includes the discovery of w- and z-particles that were previously thought to be elusive. Would it lead to a reassessment of existence or the creation of a new scientific paradigm of the world order?  What will it be? What direction should nuclear physics take in the next few years?

Carlo Rubbia. Dark Matter and Dark Energy have been demonstrated to be present and to be the actually dominant elements in the galaxies although the sources are so far completely unknown.  Are these related to some additional elementary particles or to some other form which we may discover also in the laboratory.?  Without explaining Dark Matter and Dark Energy the present “Standard Model” remains incomplete and new paradigms are inevitable either in the fields of cosmology or of nuclear physics.

In different interviews you’ve been repeatedly saying that nuclear power will be fundamentally different in the future. How will it transform and what are the main features it will acquire?

Carlo Rubbia. The lack of major changes and developments in the present nuclear power when compared to the other forms of energy has been one of its major handicaps.  Renewables and fossil energies mainly from natural gas are expected to be dominant for many centuries, provided reserves are also extended to shales and clathrates.  The fossil related emissions like CO2 can as well completely be eliminated by burning only the hydrogen and keeping unchanged the carbon.  Nuclear fission produces inevitably waste, although with a smaller intensity for thorium when compared to uranium. In the tritium based nuclear fusion an even larger amount of nuclear waste is produced compared to uranium for a given energy.  There are however other, much more attractive forms of fusion —  like for instance B11 + proton -> C12 -> 3 's—  where neither neutrons nor gamma are produced with the kinetic energies of the 3 alpha particles and without nuclear waste.  In my view, it is only at this stage and after the planned elimination without CO2 of most of natural gas that a dominance of a neutron-less nuclear power may eventually become a realistic option in the long-term future.

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