The Many Faces of the Nuclear World

Susan Morgan

On Saturday, 17th March, forty-six members and their guests met at twelve p.m. in the restaurant "L'Envol", to listen to a talk entitled "The many Faces of the Nuclear World."

Our speaker was Jean-Claude Guais, who is well-qualified to talk on this subject drawing on his experience here in France, as a physicist working for CAE, then in the development of uranium enrichment with ERODIF. He has also spent several years working for AREVA in the United States, and then as an international consultant in nuclear energy subjects. Consequently, we knew that we were to be presented with both a local and a global view of this interesting subject.

Jean-Claude pointed out that nuclear science can be developed in two directions; towards an explosion or towards energy production. Marie Curie's development of the theory of radioactivity moved towards its use in medicine. Subsequently, nuclear theory moved strongly towards the development of a weapon and the horrifying arms race which surrounded and followed the Second World War. In this way we were shown the light and the dark side of atomic energy.

There was an advance with the civil use of this energy. Nuclear reactors, so familiar to us these days, produce huge amounts of electrical power. Also nuclear medicine, as used in imaging, can be an accurate tool in diagnosis. Unfortunately, nuclear reactors produce large quantities of hazardous waste which is moved about the globe by ship and poses a transport and a storage problem, since it remains dangerous for very many years. Water-cooled reactors are known to raise the temperature of the water into which they discharge. So that our electrical power comes at a cost to the environment.

We were reminded that the two paths of civil and military development are not absolutely separate. In the apparently peaceful use of nuclear energy ways have been found to develop bombs, from technology and material designed to produce electricity. International efforts to control this proliferation has had some success, but it remains a dangerous area which continues to give rise to knife-edge politics. Indeed, we have lived all our lives with this threat.

Computers provide control systems, and this took us into the world of cybernetics. A world which, as we are only too well aware these days, is vulnerable to interference by hacking, and to theft of data. Like all modern complex systems and organisations, nuclear reactors can be attacked through their computers. Our speaker had some intriguing stories for us on this subject. We felt that our brief walk among the faces of the nuclear world, while it had not been entirely on the dark side, had included some of the larger shadows of our modern life.

Our president, Patricia Curd, thanked Jean-Claude on behalf of us all for what had been a stimulating and informative talk. The staff of the L'Envol then served us with a very pleasant lunch. Over coffee, we were able to take full advantage of the chance to ask questions of our speaker.

We took our leave thinking that we had spent a very enjoyable few hours.