How safety became the prime issue in nuclear power plant design
There are 440 nuclear power plants worldwide that generate 14 percent of global electricity supply.
Initially developed in the 1940s for military uses, it wasn’
t until the 1950s when nuclear energy was first used to generate public electricity supply. The first such nuclear power plant in the Siberian city of Obninsk in the former Soviet Union was marked by numerous accidents and the release of radioactivity into the atmosphere.
The world’s first commercial nuclear power plant started operations in 1956 at Calder Hall,
Windscale (later known as Sellafield) in Cumbria, England.
A large proportion of worldwide public opinion opposed nuclear power because of its military applications. Spent nuclear fuel was used in the manufacture of nuclear weapons. Plant safety came to the fore as a major public issue in the aftermath of a fire in October 1957 that released dangerous amounts of radioactivity.
Safety in nuclear plant design and the potential dangers of the release of radioactive materials into
the atmosphere became paramount. In terms of a plant’s engineering design this is concentrated on
the following main factors:
Containment of the nuclear reactor. It had to be strong enough to withstand earthquakes, windstorms and other natural disasters as well as direct aeroplane impact
Cooling of the nuclear reactor to avoid criticality, the point at which a nuclear fission reaction becomes uncontrollable.
However, it is only an accident itself that can test the safety of engineering design and provide the lessons that can improve the safety design. The most important accidents have been:
The March 1979 accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in Pennsylvania, U.S. This was caused by stuck nuclear valves. There was a partial meltdown and a release of iodine
and radioactive gases into the environment. However, the containment system worked and there was no loss of life
The April 1986 Chernobyl accident in the then Soviet Ukraine was caused by an explosion in the reactor vessel. The Soviet plant design did not include adequate containment. Radiation released spread throughout Europe while a large part of the Prypyat region around the plant remains uninhabitable today. About 4,000 deaths are attributed to the accident with an unknown number of thyroid and cancer-related illnesses. Since then, such Soviet designed reactors in the European Union have been decommissioned.
The March 2011 Fukushima Daiichi disaster was triggered by an earthquake and tsunami
that hit Honshu, northern Japan. There was a meltdown in three of the plant’s six reactors
and release of radioactivity. There were no fatalities from the nuclear accident but later