By Javier Yanes
“My opinions on nuclear technology and nuclear power have changed drastically over the decades. I used to be an anti-nuclear leader.” Brice Lalonde headed the French branch of the Friends of the Earth organisation, created by and for anti-nuclear activism. In 1973, he was arrested by the French navy on board a ship attempting to block his country’s atomic tests in Polynesia. In later years, he became environment minister under President François Mitterrand and founded one of France’s four environmentalist parties. But as he told Nature magazine in September 2022, his perspective changed in 1988 with the creation of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Like him, many people today argue that an energy source without greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions can be an ally to help break the dependence on fossil fuels. Many people, but not all.
From 1954, when the Soviet Union commissioned the Obninsk nuclear power plant, the first to be connected to the electricity grid, this energy source embarked on an explosive expansion that continued until the beginning of the 21st century, despite a turbulent history of nuclear incidents and accidents. The earliest ones, in the USSR and the United Kingdom, occurred only three years after that first Soviet power plant was switched on. Then came Three Mile Island in the USA (1979) and Chernobyl in Ukraine (1986), but not even the massive catastrophe of the latter could deflate the growth of nuclear power. This did happen after the Fukushima disaster in Japan in 2011, but it was only temporary; although the second most serious accident in history led the following year to the biggest drop in production since this technology has existed, and even to the rethinking of energy policy in several countries, it bounced back in 2013.