Cover Story

Nuclear Energy and Environmental Protection


The recent nuclear mishap in Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant in Japan after the devastating earthquake and tsunami has brought the nuclear debate to the forefront of controversy. International communities have been offering help to Japan with a view to preventing further environmental deterioration. While Japan is working hard to avert crises, many nations are re-examining their application of nuclear energy. One commonly asked question is, "Are nuclear energy and environmental protection compatible with each other or mutually exclusive?"

In this article, Professor C.H. Woo, Chair Professor of Solid State Electronics in Department of Electronic and Information Engineering at PolyU, shares his views on this perplexing issue. Prior to joining this University, Prof. Woo had worked with Atomic Energy of Canada for twenty years and served on the Expert Committee for US Department of Energy in 1993.

Modern lifestyles and economic development rely on energy consumption

Energy is fundamental to social and economic development. The use of hydropower, coal, oil and gas has helped to stimulate economic growth and raise the standards of living worldwide. Human's everlasting pursuit of better health, longevity, economic growth and comfortable life puts mounting pressure on the natural resources and energy consumption. As the global population grows, the demand for energy consumption escalates. According to the International Energy Agency, the world energy consumption increased from 4676 Mtoe (Megaton oil equivalent) in 1973 to 8428 Mtoe in 2008. Fossil fuels are the major type of sources supplying world energy, but their intensive burning over the years has been causing adversaries in global warming. In our course of fighting against greenhouse gas emissions, there is an urgent need to seek cleaner, more efficient and sustainable ways of producing energy on a large scale.

Nuclear Energy gives no greenhouse gas emissions and supports our fight against global warming

In the next decade, the increase in global energy supply may not be able to catch up with the consumption. Global energy consumption is set to triple by the end of the century. From now to 2050, the global production of petroleum and natural gas is expected to drop by 80%. Hence, more renewable energy sources should be used in light of the depleting production of fossil fuels and their high costs. However, there are considerable limitations and barriers to many countries depending on their different geographical conditions. Prof. Woo then cited some examples:

  • Large-scale utilization of renewable solar or wind energy depends on land availability.
  • Constructing solar power plants in deserts and transmitting the generated electricity to population centres appears to be another option. However, most big cities are far from deserts. The cost of transmitting such energy is extremely expensive and the technology involved is immature at present (e.g. there is a need to build new electric grids and other facilities that are capable of transmitting direct current).
  • Though extensive cultivation of biomass (e.g. maize) as a fuel source is an option, the arable land for these crops is mainly found in the U.S., Canada and Russia. Moreover, the amount of energy that can be derived from biomass may fluctuate tremendously with climatic change.
  • Use of hydroelectricity may create vast ecological problems. For example, the James Bay Project in Canada was suspended due to the project's anticipated adverse environmental impact.

All major forms of electricity generation, however, have some effect on the environment. Bearing in mind the overriding aim of energy efficiency and reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, we may deduce that nuclear energy is a clean, efficient and economical option for electricity generation towards the low-carbon environmental objectives. To deploy nuclear energy in a responsible manner, the world community should ensure that the operators have fully harnessed the associated technology in power generation, and high nuclear safety standards, stringent operational controls and proper radioactive waste management are effectively applied.

Energy policy requires consensus and governmental support

Prof. Woo stressed that no source of energy is risk-free and environmental considerations must be taken into account in relevant assessments. Energy policy is not only an economic issue but also a political one. It would then be imperative for a government to engage its people in formulating an energy policy that balances cost-effectiveness, social equity, environmental sustainability and security as well as effectively enhances the general well-being of its members of public. When managing the investment of new technologies, infrastructure, and products along with its associated risks, energy businesses need clear and stable policy directives from governments. On the other hand, governments and their people need assurances from the businesses in terms of safety, reliable production and control over other challenges. These concerns should not be overridden by corporate profit motives when governments try to maintain healthy regional and global economies.

In other words, consequences arising from nuclear accidents are cataclysmic. Consensus must be reached for the further utilization of nuclear energy. If nuclear energy development projects are undertaken by profit-driven private enterprises, there is a possibility of these enterprises sacrificing public wellness for maximization of profits. Therefore, it would be prudent to have public enterprises or the like responsible for nuclear energy projects.

In the aftermath of the Fukushima Nuclear Plant incident, Germany has indicated that it intends to close down all nuclear plants in the country by 2022. However, as other types of energy sources become more and more expensive and the potential of economic downturn exists, the possibility of reversal of this policy cannot be ruled out.

Aging nuclear reactors found in developed countries

To date, about 80% of the nuclear reactors worldwide have been used for at least 30 years and many of them are seeking license renewal from the local governments. During the review process, governments should pay attention to whether their operating conditions are satisfactory. It is worth mentioning that energy businesses in developed countries are not willing to invest in new reactors because of their enormous cost and risk. A multi-billion dollar investment in new reactors can turn into a multi-billion dollar liability all of a sudden. In Prof. Woo's opinion, business is business. Without the government's guarantees or advanced cost recovery by taxpayers, it would be difficult for energy businesses to consider building new reactors while bearing economic and safety risks in the prevailing market-driven economy.

Technological advancement and a new source of cleaner nuclear energy

Prof. Woo points out that the conventional nuclear reactors have been providing electricity for decades through nuclear fission of heavy radioactive metals, Uranium-238. At the same time, they are also producing radioactive wastes. Advancement in nuclear technology today enables us to bring in higher fuel efficiency and a better breeder ratio.

In contrast to nuclear fission, scientists have started to explore another form of nuclear power - fusion power. It is a primary area of research in Plasma Physics using isotopes of hydrogen as a nuclear fuel to generate power by nuclear fusion processes.

Nuclear fusion has the potential to play an important role as part of a future energy mix for our planet. It has the capacity to produce energy on a large scale, using readily available hydrogen isotopes, and releasing no carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gases. There is no possibility of runaway heat build-up or large-scale release of radioactivity.

Right now, a multi-national collaborative project, named International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), is underway with the aim of producing an environmentally benign form of energy. It involves construction of a pilot fusion power plant in Southern France for operational tests in the next 20 years. Hopefully, the first commercial fusion reactor will be in operation by 2050.

With commitment and collaboration, the world collectively is getting smarter in the use of nuclear power.

Activities and Development on Campus

Sustainability-Related Seminars and Workshops

There were many sustainability-related seminars and workshops held on the PolyU campus within the last three months.

The Institute for Enterprise organized a seminar on "Low-Carbon Economy" in collaboration with many local organizations on 08 April 2011. On 02 June, a workshop on "Co-Control of Air Pollutants and GHGs - Methodology and Practices" was held by the Research Center for Sustainable Infrastructure Development together with many other universities in Mainland China. The Department of Building Services Engineering also actively arranged many seminars and workshops related to sustainable buildings. These include a workshop on "Energy Performance of Buildings – Challenges and Opportunities" on 19 April, a two-day workshop on "Sustainable Electrical Services System Design" from 07 to 08 June, and a seminar on "Sustainable Intelligent Buildings for People" on 14 June. All these events received enthusiastic responses and attracted not only students and staff of PolyU but also people from other institutions and organizations.

Competition on Green Plastics

The Department of Mechanical Engineering and Fukutomi Company Limited co-organized a student competition entitled "Potential Applications of Green Plastics" to encourage PolyU's undergraduate students to develop new products by using recycled or biodegradable plastics so as to advocate environmental protection.

13 teams of students joined the competition and finally there were five awards. The award ceremony together with the project showcase was held on the campus on 20 April 2011.


PolyU's brilliant researchers exhibited their innovative caliber at the 39th International Exhibition of Inventions of Geneva held in May 2011. Out of the ten prizes they won, three of them are related to environmentally friendly inventions :

  • Silver Medal : Ecodesign and Green Manufacturing Model for Electrical and Electronic Products under EuP Directive (Inventor : Dr Winco Yung Kam-chuen, Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering)
  • Silver Medal : Novel Activated Sludge Eco-Bricks Manufacturing Technology (Inventor : Prof. Chua Hong, Department of Civil and Structural Engineering)
  • Special Prize and Silver Medal : Solar Powered Air Conditioning System for Vehicles (Inventor : Prof. Eric Cheng, Department of Electrical Engineering)

Pollution Control

EPD Proposed to Ban All Forms of Asbestos

Asbestos has been used as a heat and chemical resisting material in vehicles, building services, fire proofing, electrical and mechanical installations, etc. Since it is a proven carcinogen which can cause asbestosis, lung cancer and mesothelioma, the import and sale of brown and blue asbestos have already been banned since 1996 under the Air Pollution Control Ordinance (APCO). As safe and proven alternatives for white asbestos become more popular, it has been an international trend to extend the ban on the import, sale and use of asbestos to white asbestos. With a view to further reducing the risk of asbestos to the public of Hong Kong and following international practice, the Environmental Protection Department (EPD) recently proposed to amend the APCO to extend the existing ban on import and sale of brown and blue asbestos to all other forms of asbestos and prohibit the supply and new use of all forms of asbestos. On 12 May 2011, EPD hosted a briefing session to announce this proposal and collect feedbacks from the concerned trades and industries.

PolyU fully supports EPD's proposal. On the PolyU campus, asbestos-containing building materials had already been removed from our buildings. In new buildings, asbestos of any forms has no longer been considered for use.

News and Tips

Help Metal Recycling

Recycling is one of the means to reduce the amount of waste being dumped into the landfill. In our daily life, we can help by sorting out the recyclable components before we throw the non-recyclable waste into rubbish bins. Waste metal is one type of such recyclables.

Recycling bins for metal accept steel cans, aluminum cans, milk powder cans, cookware such as steel woks, aluminum or stainless steel cauldrons, and mooncake cans.

However, aerosol cans and chemical containers should not be recycled because of the danger caused by the pressure and chemicals inside such containers.