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Nuclear Power: Economic Blessing Or Environmental Hazard Essay, Research Paper

Nuclear Power: Economic Blessing or Environmental Hazard

The discovery in the 1940?s of energy produced through the nuclear fission of an atom has proven to be a very effective source of energy. It has also been found to be dangerous and the power plants that produce it could be somewhat accident-prone. There are many experts that support both sides of this argument. One expert argues:

Although the process of nuclear power from an idea to a commercial reality has witnessed many successes, it has also had its share of failures. Unfortunately, the failures make more news and therefore catch the attention of the public. The success stories are seldom publicized. (Blix 1)

There have been numerous accidents at nuclear power plants that could lead one to believe that they are more of a danger than a worthwhile provider.

Though it is a great source of energy, nuclear power is still viewed with suspicion by many. As one expert observes, ?A vocal public opinion in the West, with increasing echoes elsewhere, is demanding a stop to further nuclear power construction and even a phasing out of existing capacity? (Blix 1-2). Of the many accidents that have occurred throughout the years at nuclear power plants, many complications have arisen and numerous lives have been lost. For example, statistics from studies completed twelve years after the nuclear accident in Chernobyl, in the Russian Ukraine, show that the frequency of diseases in this area are nearly four times as much as before the accident (Henderson 1). The radiation given off by nuclear power plants can harm the people, wildlife, and agriculture around them. Another large problem with nuclear energy is the safety of the radioactive waste that it produces. Three experts say a large consequence of nuclear power is ?the long-lived fission products (FP) and the minor actinides (MA) since their safe isolation from the environment requires hundred thousand years? (Saito, Artisyuk, and Chmelev).

When first coming out in the1950?s, nuclear power was enthusiastically viewed as a peaceful use of the atom. ?Science, scientific achievements and scientists were looked upon with favor by the media and highly appreciated by the public? (Blix 3). Since its discovery in the fifties, nuclear power has accounted for 17% of the world?s electricity supply in the second half of the century, which about the same portion as hydroelectric power (Blix 2). The power has been a great addition in many areas around the world and in some areas has become the main source of energy. In the fifty years of nuclear power existence, 440 nuclear power plants are in operation not to mention the 8000 years of experience on the power reactors that has been compiled (Blix 3).

Though we could optimistically view the future of nuclear energy, the past has certainly had many pessimistic incidents. In the 1970?s, the rise in oil prices gave the perfect reason to start using nuclear power as a main source of energy. Dr. Hans Blix recounts, ?Energy planners started to accord a much greater role to nuclear power in their quest for suitable substitutes for burning oil and to assure a more diversified energy supply for the world? (3-4). As nuclear power became more popular, the public began to notice and worry about its safety. Radiation and environmental damage added to the countless concerns caused simply by the unfamiliarity of the public with nuclear power. While there had still been no problems, the nuclear power industry was soon targeted and many organizations began opposing nuclear power.

On March 28, 1979, the first major nuclear power plant accident, and the worst to ever occur in the United States, happened at the Three Mile Island Unit 2 reactor near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Equipment failure and the inability of plant operators to recognize and respond to the reactor?s condition caused the accident. Even though there was some radiation released in the accident, there were no deaths or injuries. In response to the accident at Three Mile Island, the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations was founded (INPO) to promote safety and reliability in nuclear power plants by collecting, monitoring, and reporting nuclear plant data.

Seven years after the accident at Three Mile Island, nuclear power plants around the world had amassed 3500 years of operational experience without having a fatality due to an accident. That all changed early in the morning on April 26, 1986. Leonid Toptunov, a young, inexperienced, and exhausted operator at the Soviet nuclear power plant in Chernobyl, allowed the level of reactivity in one reactor to go very dangerously low. When he attempted to correct his blunder, the power in the reactor rose dramatically and uncontrollably. A meltdown of the reactor core occurred and a powerful steam explosion took place. A hydrogen explosion followed, which started a large graphite fire and millions of curies of radioactivity were released into the environment. This eruption continued for ten days. One expert recalls this as ?the worst disaster in the history of nuclear energy? (Medvedev 19-20). The disaster was first kept quiet by the Soviets, but a few days later hundreds of thousands of people were evacuated from the land contaminated by the disaster. This land is still poisoned by the radiation caused by the accident today, fourteen years later (Henderson). The total number of deaths from the accident is an estimated 3,576, including an estimated 797 emergency workers sent in to clean the contaminated area. When the evacuation was completed, 73 villages lost their meadows, vegetable and fruit gardens and all other plant life and three million acres of agricultural land was lost for decades (Medvedev 105). 600,000 persons, including 250,000 children, received high doses of radiation when the radioactive cloud was discharged from the explosion. Those who survived the high radiation have to live lives similar to those who survived the atomic bombings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki (176-77). Until recently, the Soviets had a policy of withholding information on circumstances surrounding Chernobyl and the results of their huge blunder. One expert responds, ?Not only the cover-up but the policy of the Soviets to withhold information will do nothing to restore public confidence in nuclear power? (Gale 288).

A major concern in the conflict over the use of nuclear power is that accidents are still occurring today. An example of this would be Japan, who even after the U.S. and many other countries abandoned heavy use of nuclear power still ?boasted of its ?plutonium economy?-based nuclear power system? (Von Hippel and Jones 46). Frank von Hippel and Suzanne Jones go on to say in their article for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists:

Revelations about accidents and cover-ups at Japan?s three multi-billion-dollar demonstration plutonium-recycle facilities have undermined public confidence in the nuclear power program. (Von Hippel and Jones 46)

Japan has earned public distrust from the accidents that they have had. Though these incidents were apparently not a public health danger, the Japanese government agency the Power Reactor and Nuclear Fuel Development Corporation (PNC) postponed reporting accidents and then made them look less serious to the public. On December 8, 1995, a coolant pipe in Japan?s breeder reactor near Monju released 700 kilograms of liquid sodium coolant in a leak, which caught fire. The PNC showed a video that insinuated that the accident was much more minuscule than it really was. They later revealed an edited out portion of that tape that disclosed its actual size (Von Hippel and Jones 47). ?In sorrow over a bungled attempt to cover up the seriousness of the accident, the plant manager, Shigeo Nishimura, committed suicide? (Thompson 11).

On March 11 of 1995, a fire occurred at a facility where low-level waste is disabled at Tokai village near Tokyo. The sprinkler system was turned off too soon and the fire burned for hours while some of the plant?s officials were playing in a golf tournament. After ten hours of burning, the fire caused an explosion that blew out the side of the building and sent radioactivity into the atmosphere. This release of radioactivity was not reported for hours and when it was, the magnitude was not originally reported to its full extent.

On April 14 of the same year, the major plutonium-fueled demonstration reactor called ?Fugen? had a leak of tritium-laced heavy-water coolant. The release was not reported for more than thirty hours. Further investigation uncovered 18 similar unreported releases in the previous five years.

Most of Japan?s plutonium facilities are being shut down as a result of these scandals and plans for a larger breeder reactor in the twenty-first century, another step ahead in the science of nuclear power, are likely to be canceled (Von Hippel and Jones 47-48). The most recent of the accidents happened on September 30, 1999 at the nuclear fuel conversion facility in Tokai, Japan, which is about 90 miles northeast of Tokyo. A worker put seven times the proper amount of Uranium in the mixing container, which caused a chain reaction that lasted for 20 hours. There was a release of radiation and an evacuation of 207 people who lived within one-fifth of a mile of the plant and 237 workers and rescue personnel were exposed to low levels of radiation. Three workers received high amounts of radiation that can cause after-effects and one of the workers died of multi-organ failure on December 21, 1999.

Though all of these accidents and blunders that have sent dangerous radiation into the atmosphere by nuclear power plants can seem very disturbing, the proponents of nuclear power offer some key arguments. The Nuclear Energy Institute released a September 1990 National Cancer Institute study that showed the 107 counties that are close to or have one of the 62 major nuclear facilities of the United States, no increase of cancer mortality has been noted. In fact, people living very close to nuclear power plants receive only one percent of their total exposure of radiation from that which is emitted by the plants. The majority of radiation that the public is exposed to is not due to nuclear power plants or other man-made radiation such as X-rays or television sets. Radiation is a natural part of the environment and comes from the air, rocks, and soil. Natural sources and not nuclear power plants cause 82 percent of the exposure of radiation to the public. Also, these studies have shown that there is no increase in cancer among people living in areas of high natural radiation. Nuclear power plants are not even the highest source of exposure of man-made radiation. Most of the public?s exposure to this radiation is due to X-rays and other medical treatments that use radioactive materials.

Nuclear power has proven to be a considerable source of energy for the United States. There are five states that have nuclear power supplying them with the largest percentage of their electricity. New York receives 26.6 percent of their electricity from nuclear power, South Carolina 56.7 percent, New Hampshire 59.4 percent, Vermont 72.5 percent, and New Jersey has almost three-fourths of their electricity from nuclear power. The capacity of a 1000 MWe reactor (the typical reactor of the 103 reactors in the United States) has been about 80 percent. In one year, one of these reactors working at this capacity would generate seven billion KWh, which is enough energy to supply 650,000 households with electricity for the entire year. To generate this much electricity with other fuel sources would take 11.6 million barrels of oil, 3.5 million short tons of coal, or 70 billion cubic feet of natural gas. Electricity is not the only use for nuclear energy. Nuclear power can be used to produce heat for industrial processes, conventional heating purposes, and for desalination of seawater.

As shown by the Chernobyl accident, dangerous radiation is very harmful when released and safety is the most important point of conflict between proponents and opponents of nuclear power. On this subject, Dr. Hans Blix, Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency says:

Safety is of unique significance for nuclear power. The risk of accidents and incidents can never be brought to zero, but the safety record of nuclear power compares very favorably with the record of other means of energy generation in terms of death or injury caused to persons or damage to the environment. (Blix 4)

The nuclear power industry can never stop reducing risk and cannot afford accidents. Although the probability of an accident at a nuclear power plant is very low, the consequences of having an accident can be remarkably hazardous. The efforts to improve safety in nuclear power are ongoing and improvements are hoped for in reducing plant operator errors, consequences of these errors, and the use of passive safety features (Blix 5-6). The current stage of nuclear power is only the beginning of what is to come in the future of nuclear power advancement. The ideal use of nuclear power in the future would be an energy that does not produce a waste and is inexhaustible. Three experts expand on the importance of this:

Environmental harmonization of nuclear energy technology is considered an absolutely necessary condition in its future successful development for peaceful uses. Establishment of a self-consistent nuclear energy system that simultaneously meets four requirements-energy production, fuel production, burning radionuclides and safety strongly relies on neutron excess generation?Neutron excess generation by external neutron sources based on accelerator and fusion technologies would open the possibility of approaching the self-consistent nuclear energy system with unlimited fuel resources and zero radioactivity release. (Saito, Artisyuk, and Chmelev 1)

This self-consistent nuclear energy system, or SCNES, would generate the maximum possible energy out of the atom while making an unlimited fuel supply. The radioactive waste would be non-existent because waste would be recycled in the system, making safety from radioactivity minimal. SCNES would be the perfect energy source having no waste and an endless supply.

It should be noted that nuclear power is not the only source of energy that is damaging to the environment, even though it is most often the source singled out by environmentalists. Fossil fuels are the leading cause of most of the carbon dioxide that is emitted into the atmosphere. Nuclear power would be seen as a future solution for that type of pollution.

One of the main reasons for strong opposition to nuclear power is the connection with military uses of the atom. In the early research and discovery of the use of the atom, its peaceful and military uses were closely entangled. As time passes the two uses are growing further apart, as explained by one expert:

With the geopolitical situation that has arisen after the end of the Cold War, the outlook for nuclear disarmament is bright. USA and Russia are dismantling nuclear weapons at such a pace that they have problems, disposing of the fissile material. At some not too distant point, the other nuclear weapon States will join in this downward spiral. Although the disarmament process is not likely to achieve point zero in the foreseeable future, it can go quite far. If it does, no-proliferation might become universal and ? after a long period during which the risk of nuclear disaster has stared humanity in the face ? the peaceful atom would dominate the scene. The disassociation from the belligerent atom should help to extend the acceptance of nuclear power. (Blix 8)

As the link to nuclear weapons is diminishing, there is reduced opposition to nuclear power. Still the main reason for opposition is the acceptance that there will never be a guaranteed absence of accidents.

It is a fact that we will someday need an alternative source of energy. Current resources like oil and gas that are non-renewable, will become fewer in amounts over time, and will someday be completely consumed. There will need to be alternative forms of energy when these resources are gone. If nuclear power can maintain safety, nuclear energy may be the key to keeping the world going when total consumption of these resources occurs.


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