Nuclear Energy: Monster or Savior?

Wanting her engineering students to take on challenges, Virginie Francoeur, Professor of Change Management at Ploytechnique Montréal, offers those with excellent communication skills to publish their writings here and in Reflet de Société. In this installment, Virginie Francoeur presents Léo Sajas, who is studying for his professional master’s degree in industrial engineering. What a great opportunity to link engineering, management and communication together. The idea is to bring to a wider audience knowledge about the environmental and social challenges we face as a society:

By Léo Sajas

The debate on nuclear energy is one of the most important of the 21st century. Between passionate supporters and ardent detractors, nuclear energy evokes deep emotions. In the middle of a record-breaking forest fire summer, on August 10th, 2023, Hydro-Québec posted the following message on their X (formerly Twitter) account (translated from the French):  

Remember that the demand for clean electricity will increase significantly over the coming years. Decarbonizing Quebec’s economy represents an immense challenge. An assessment of the current state of the power station (Gentilly-2) is underway, in order to evaluate our options and to inform our thoughts on Quebec’s future energy supply. We are evaluating different possible options to increase the production of clean electricity. It would be irresponsible at this time to exclude certain energy sectors.

Opinions and prejudices set aside, let’s examine in a scientific manner what nuclear energy can provide to our energy future.

Nuclear Energy in Brief

A nuclear energy plant uses uranium to cause nuclear fission, a process in which the uranium nucleus divides in two, freeing up a great deal of heat. This heat is used to heat water and produce steam, which turns a turbine connected to a generator. This produces electricity. Nuclear power stations are a basic energy source for a number of nations, furnishing great quantities of electricity in a continuous manner, which makes them attractive for responding to the growing demand for energy.

Producing 2,170 billion kilowatt-hours (or 2,170 terawatt-hours – TWh) in 2018 (10.1% of world production), nuclear energy is the third largest source of electricity on the planet. At the end of 2019, 443 nuclear reactors were in service in 30 countries, including in the U.S. (841.3 TWh); in France (412.9 TWh), and in China (295 TWh). Canada had 23 functioning reactors.


One of the arguments in favor of nuclear energy is its low greenhouse gas emissions. Contrary to fossil fuel electric power stations, which run on fuels like coal and natural gas, nuclear reactors produce almost no carbon dioxide (CO2) when producing electricity: about 4 g of CO2 per kWh compared to 1050g for a coal-fired plant. That makes nuclear power an attractive option for fighting climate change while reducing dependence on fossil fuels.

Nuclear plants have a high production capacity and are capable of furnishing continual electricity, in contrast with renewable energy sources like wind and solar power. That makes nuclear power a stable energy source, guaranteeing a constant supply of electricity.

Nations with nuclear plants can reduce their dependence on imported fossil fuels. That helps them with their energy security, as they are less prey to oil and natural gas price fluctuations, as Europe was last winter.


The main drawback of nuclear energy is in the management of radioactive waste produced by fission. These wastes remain dangerous for many years and must be stored securely for a long time. The elimination of nuclear waste is one of the principal preoccupations associated with this energy source.

Nuclear accidents are rare, but they can have disastrous consequences on human health and the environment. Events like Chernobyl in 1986 and Fukushima in 2011 have shone a light on the inherent dangers of this technology.

Finally, nuclear energy is very expensive on several levels. The construction and maintenance of a nuclear plant is a very costly undertaking. There are often cost overruns. The long-term management of nuclear waste is also pricey, as well as posing a technological challenge.

The viability of nuclear programs often depends on the political climate, which can change as governments change. In France, for example, their nuclear energy program has been marked by cost fluctuations and political reversals. Successive governments have taken contradictory decisions on the expansion and reduction of their nuclear power system. Massive investments have been made in plants, followed by decisions to close them down, entailing massive financial losses. Spending on maintenance, security and waste disposal have weighed heavily on public finances. This economic and political instability has raised questions about the viability of nuclear power in France,

A Nuclear Future?

The debate over nuclear energy is complex and passionate. Though it offers a reduction in fossil fuel consumption, it is not without its risks and disadvantages.

These days, the scientific world is developing a third generation of nuclear reactors, representing a fundamental evolution in the technology. There are improvements in the safety, efficacy and durability of nuclear plants. These new reactors have been designed to be more reliable than their predecessors, thanks to the use of passive refrigeration systems, new safety features and accident-preventing concepts. Two EPRs (European Pressurized Reactors) are currently in service in China (Taishan), and two more are under construction, one in Finland (Olkiluoto) and in France (Flamanville).  

Moreover, the international ITER (“the way” in Latin) project is exploring nuclear fusion as a clean, practically inexhaustible source of energy. If it succeeds, it will drastically reduce fossil fuel consumption and solve our greenhouse gas problem. But heavy technological and financial challenges remain.

If these challenges can be successfully met, nuclear energy could play a role in a cleaner, more durable energy future.

To see the sources for this text, please go on The Reflet de Société website. Click here.

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