by Guest Blogger Michael McDonald, a Senior at Florida Gulf Coast University
The topic of nuclear energy has been an exhausted topic debated within the United States. The potential dangers of nuclear power plants leave many people hesitant to explore further into nuclear agendas and science. Those in favor of nuclear power often are staunch supporters of aggressive nuclear ambitions. The subject of nuclear energy is not a new idea, at least not as new as solar, geothermal, or wind energy. Most of the nuclear power plants in operation today were built in the 1970s. Despite the potential dangers of nuclear power plants, nuclear energy is clean energy.
The science of nuclear energy is composed of a chain reaction which produces a clean, environmentally safe way to produce electricity. The process begins with nuclear fission. During this process, the nucleus of an atom is split, creating massive amounts of heat. Water is used to convert the energy into steam, which propels a generator, creating electricity.
There are numerous benefits to nuclear energy. The first of which is the impact on the environment. Nuclear power plants do not release any harmful gases into the atmosphere, since the gas that emerges from the exhaust towers is just evaporated water in the form of steam. This is quite a difference to coal powered plants, which create electricity in a similar way, but release fossil fuels into the air that not only damage the atmosphere, but the overall health of people, especially a person’s lung. Aside from being a form of clean energy, nuclear power plants are reliable, providing electricity for nearly forty years, sometimes longer. Nuclear power is also used in the military, since many submarines are powered by nuclear means.
Despite the benefits of nuclear power, there are plenty of disadvantages. The biggest factor that leaves many uneasy about nuclear power plants is an event that happened on April 26, 1986, in Russia, in the western part of the country. Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station was built adjacent to the town of Pirpyat. Pirpyat was a relatively new town with great opportunities. It was a town of promise and a better life. One catastrophic event would change the town forever.
During the night, an explosion occurred at Chernobyl. One of the reactors ruptured, spewing radioactive matter into the atmosphere contaminating large areas of Europe. The town of Pirpyat was destroyed. The remained intact, but the levels of radiation were so high that it had to be abandoned. The disaster at Chernobyl was what scientists call a meltdown. The reactor core overheated. This led to the melting of the fuel rods which contained the pellets which encapsulate the uranium. With the explosion, the pellets melted, releasing the radioactive material from within.
The Chernobyl accident was a global disaster. The accident halted nuclear ambitions in America. Chernoybal was not an example of the unreliability of nuclear power, but revealed the brevity that came with using nuclear power. The accident occurred because safety precautions were not taken and the plant was not properly maintained. Another reason for the accident was the design of the plant. The reactors were not housed in concrete area, so when the reactor blew, nothing prevented the radioactive matter from entering the atmosphere.
In America, nuclear power plants are built differently. Each reactor is built within a concrete container, so in the event of a meltdown, the radioactive matter would not be released into the atmosphere like Chernobyl. One example of how America prevented a disaster was the accident at Three Mile Island in Middletown, Pennsylvania. The accident happened at four in the morning on March 28, 1979. A mechanical failure prevented water from cooling the reactor, which prevented the steam from removing the heat. The pressure and heat caused the reactor to rupture. The pellets began to melt. Due to quick reactions, the Environmental Protection Agency and the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission (USNRC) took swift action, managing to restore water flow and cool down the reactors. The accident was the most dangerous nuclear disaster in US history, but despite the circumstance, there were no deaths or injuries to plant workers and the surrounding community.
The accident at Three Mile Island brought immediate, comprehensive changes to the nuclear industry. Changes like emergency response planning, reactor operation planning, human factors engineering, radiation protection, and other areas. It caused the USNRC to tighten and heighten its oversight.
The dangers of nuclear power are also a national security issue. Any nation that can produce nuclear energy can produce nuclear weapons. This led to the Cold War and the Cuban Missile Crisis, where it was said that Russia supplied Cuba with nuclear weapons to fire at the United States in the 1960s. Terror organizations can also have access to nuclear weapons through nations like Iran and North Korea, nations which have been encouraged to tone down their respective nuclear programs due to concerns regarding nuclear proliferation, and the illegal sale of nuclear weapons.
Another danger associated with using nuclear energy is the removal of nuclear waste. Used nuclear waste is highly radioactive. The waste is biodegradable, but would take centuries to become non-radioactive. One example of the dangers of nuclear waste is Lake Karachay, adjacent to the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. Plant workers dumped the nuclear waste into the lake. Today, Lake Karachay is the most radioactive site in the world. Facts provided by government agencies report that a person can absorb a lethal amount of radiation in less than an hour just by standing on the shore. In the United States, the location to permanently store spent nuclear fuel will have to be decided in the next twenty years. An idea has been suggested to store the waste in the Yucca Mountain in Nevada. The idea has faced staunch opposition from residents of Nevada.
The recent accident in Japan at the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant is fast becoming the next Chernobyl. The accident in Japan was triggered by an underwater earthquake, which created a Tsunami that crashed into Japan. This differs from the accidnet at Chernobyl, which was the result of an explosion from within the power plant. The comparasion between Chernobyl and Fukushima stems from the similar level of radioactive matter.
In Japan, the earthquake had a magnitude of 6.5, knocking out power to the plant. During the Chernobyl accidnet, there was a system malfunction, resulting in a breakdown in the cooling system. Water was not able to cool the reactor core, casuing it to rupture. Radioactive matter was released into the atmosphere, spreading as far as California. While there were no fataliies due to the result of the power plant accident, the area within fifty miles had to be evacuated and the levels of radation remain high.
After the nuclear accident, specualtion arose regarding what happened exactly and what kind of damamge was incurred. The Naples News reported that seventy percent of the fuel rods were severely damaged. Japanese officials desperately tried to manually cool down the reactors by dumping gallons of water overhead, but the radiation levels prevented them from flying at low altitudes, forcing pilots to dump water higher up, compromising the accuracy of the water dump. Warships were ordered to the area and modified military planes were sent to fly over the country, collecting data for radiation levels. CNBC reported that due to the increasing levels of radiation, Navy ships left the immediate region away from the power plant, though they still remained off the coast of Japan to assist in relief efforts for earthquake victims.
The accident at Fukushima was caused by a natural event. The complications after the earthquake were a result of human error. Warnings had been given about the safety of the plant, but were ignored. As a result, Japan is desperately trying to avoid another Chernobyl. Traces of radiation have been found in food and water supplies. The levels increase and decrease daily. If it was suggested that an earthquake, a tsunami, and a nuclear disaster were to happen at the same time, people would probably dismiss the idea. But it happened.
After the event, the USNRC identified numerous US nuclear power plants on fault lines, especially in the state of California, which has several nuclear power plants on fault lines. This is a concern for some. President Barack Obama ordered a list to be drawn out on the ten most problem-prone power plants in the nation. He also delegated the responsibility to the secretary of energy to follow-up and lead efforts to update equipment and decommission those deemed unsafe.
Today, many nations use nuclear energy to power cities. The country of France draws seventy-five percent of its electricity from nuclear energy. Slovakia comes in second, Belgium third, and the Ukraine fourth. These facts come from the March 24, 2011 edition of the USA Today newspaper. There are great benefits to nuclear energy, and there are disastrous consequences of the use of nuclear energy. The best thing nations can do is take the right steps to manage their nuclear supplies and work together to keep nuclear energy safe.