You are on page 1of 10

Nuclear Power

A Safe Form of Energy

Robert C. Taylor May 16, 2011

The author argues that nuclear power is safe source to derive electricity from. Accordingly, the author includes in the report details supporting his argument. First the author details the safety features of nuclear reactors. Then the author provides an explanation accounting for the consequences of a nuclear containment failure. Next, the author argues that nuclear waste should be reprocessed, and the author details a possible solution for the storing of nuclear waste that cannot be consumed by current nuclear reactors. Last, the author challenges the views held by the anti-nuclear movement.

Nuclear Power: A Safe Form of Energy

Robert C. Taylor

Nuclear Power: A Safe Form of Energy Nuclear power is a misunderstood technology, regarded with fear, uncertainty, and ambivalence. Furthering the misunderstanding of nuclear energy is the advanced theoretical knowledge required to comprehend nuclear fission. Hence, individuals of the public are discouraged from attempting to grasp the concept of nuclear fission. Consequently, the publics lack of proper understanding of nuclear energy has manifested in an irrational fear of using nuclear energy as a source of electricity. Furthermore, the irrational fear of nuclear energy has been perpetuated by the mass media and government policy. Subsequently, the truth of nuclear energys safety has been lost in a frenzy of emotions, media frenzies, and terrible government policies. Needless to say, having lost the truth about the safety of nuclear energy is unfortunate. Nuclear power is one of the safest sources of energy available today. First, an operating nuclear power plant is safe because the fuel used by the reactor cannot sustain a super critical action, and nuclear plants features systems to regulate a nuclear reaction. Consequently, nuclear power plants cannot spawn a nuclear explosion because reactors use fuel with a mixture that has a good proportion of the common U-238 isotope (Aczel 223). In contrast, fuel pure [in] U-235 [is] only used in atomic bombs (Aczel 223). Therefore, since nuclear reactors use fuel not enriched high enough in U-235, the possibility of the nuclear fuel going supercritical is nonexistent. Moreover, nuclear reactors feature Cadmium rods [which] are inserted into the reactor to keep the reactions at controlled levels (Aczel 212). Thus, the cadmium rods can be inserted into the reactor in the event the nuclear reaction begins to go out of control. Consequently, the possibility of a nuclear plant going super critical is remote because the cadmium rods control the nuclear reaction and because the fuel used in nuclear reactors is enriched too low in uranium.

Nuclear Power: A Safe Form of Energy

Robert C. Taylor

Next, in the event that an operating reactor faces a meltdown, the risk of releasing radioactive materials into the external atmosphere is minimal. Nuclear power plants are designed to contain the radioactive gases released by a meltdown and at the same time terminate the meltdown. Therefore, nuclear power plants have been designed with the premise that to effectively contain a meltdown, the meltdown must be stopped (Beyea and Hippel 2). Thus, nuclear plants are designed with containment buildings to prevent the escaping of nuclear material in the early stages of a meltdown. The containment building of a nuclear reactor is designed to withstand internal pressures of three to four atmospheres to prevent the breaching of the containment building by an increase in pressure (Beyea and Hippel 2). Furthermore, to prevent the radioactive gases from escaping [nuclear power plants are] designed to have negative pressure so that radioactive gas does not flow out (Grier 2). However, because a meltdown would eventually cause a mass buildup in pressure culminating in a failure of containment, nuclear plants are designed with water sprays, water pools or compartments full of ice whose purpose is to reduce pressures by removing steam from the containment atmosphere (Beyea and Hippel 2). Additionally, the inclusion of these features in nuclear plants helps put an end to a nuclear meltdown. Additionally, if the containment system of the nuclear reactor fails by allowing radioactive material from a meltdown to escape, the resulting consequences will not be severe. Serving as an excellent example is the incident at Three Mile Island because studies have indicated that the radioactive material released, due to a containment failure, has had little impact on individuals health. In fact, a health study found that the [radiation] leak had no demonstrable effect on the health of anyone at the plant or in the surrounding area (Nuclear Energy 3). Mirroring the resulting health impact of Three Mile Island, are the health effects

Nuclear Power: A Safe Form of Energy

Robert C. Taylor

observed resulting from the containment failure of the Chernobyl power plant. A study conducted 14 years later to determine if there was an increase in cancer deaths from the Chernobyl incident, found that the cancer death rate in the area had not increased noticeably (Nuclear Energy 3). More convincing, one scientist has noted that the estimated number of deaths that might have resulted from Chernobyl is no greater than the annual number of deaths in the United States caused by air pollution from coal-burning power plants (Nuclear Energy 3). Consequently, finding that Chernobyl has had little impact is especially noteworthy because Chernobyl has the reputation of being the worst recorded nuclear accident in history (Nuclear Energy 3). Thus, these studies prove that nuclear energy is safe, since the release of radioactive material will not result in a large impact on the publics health. Furthermore, the common idea that nuclear plants produce large amounts of dangerous radioactive waste is false because much of the nuclear waste can be reclaimed by reprocessing. By reprocessing the nuclear waste, the nuclear reactor can consume a larger percentage of the fuel. In fact, reprocessing would greatly reduce the amount of waste because during the normal operation of a nuclear reactor about 5% of the energy held in the uranium is used (Choppin 2). Therefore, by reprocessing the used uranium, a larger percentage will be burned reducing the total amount of nuclear waste. Furthermore, by having the nuclear plants consume more nuclear material, there would be less nuclear waste needing storage. In fact, the amount of nuclear waste could greatly be reduced because according to Nuclear Energy, Reprocessing could convert a years supply of spent fuel into a block of vitrified waste about three cubic meters in size (4). Thus, the reduction in the amount of nuclear waste will reduce the risk of the waste polluting the environment and eliminate the safety hazards of nuclear waste.

Nuclear Power: A Safe Form of Energy

Robert C. Taylor

Moreover, the problem of nuclear waste reprocessing producing large amounts of weapons grade material has been solved by new technology and new ideas. Technology has brought ways to reprocess nuclear waste that do not produce weapons grade plutonium. In fact, according to Choppin, New technologies have been proposed for reprocessing that do not involve separating pure plutonium (4). Furthermore, Choppin details that new technologies increase[s] the difficulty of diverting plutonium because Choppin finds that the using of actinides to separate plutonium would make the plutonium not usable as weapons material without sophisticated chemical separation technologies which few countries possess (4). Consequently, with this new technology the risk of plutonium being separated and used for weapons is eliminated. Needless to say, the production of purified plutonium need not be a bad thing. The separated plutonium could be processing into MOX fuel [and] burn[ed] in reactors and then the resulting power, produced by the consumed plutonium, used to generate electricity (Choppin 7). Consequently, the reactor would destroy the plutonium eliminating the possibility of the plutonium being used for nuclear bombs, and would reduce the total amount of nuclear waste. Indeed, the claim that there is no viable way to store nuclear waste is false. Jack Spencer suggests that the solution, to the storing of nuclear waste, is to place private industry in charge (3). Spencer recommended that private industry should be charged with waste disposal because he finds the government [has failed] to fulfill its legal obligations under the 1982 act (1). According to Spencer, this failure by the government to fulfill the obligations set into law has impeded the safe storage of the nuclear waste. Therefore, Spencer strongly believes private industry should manage nuclear waste. Spencer finds that if waste storage were given to the market, then this would create competition and encourage the development of the most

Nuclear Power: A Safe Form of Energy

Robert C. Taylor

appropriate technologies for the American [nuclear waste disposal] market (5). Additionally, by placing these companies in control, new methods of safely storing nuclear waste would emerge because those operating the storage repositories would naturally want to find the most cost effective, safe, and profitable method to dispose of nuclear waste. Consequently, by having private industry manage nuclear waste will result in the finding of new solutions to nuclear waste disposal and will result in an improvement of existing solutions. Ultimately, the problem of storing nuclear waste will become non-existent due to the resulting innovations from the intense competition that will be seen between waste storage operators. Next, the arguments made by those groups in opposition to nuclear energy are erroneous. The sole goal of these groups, collectively called the anti-nuclear movement, is to completely end the use of nuclear fission as an energy source. Consequently, one facet of their argument is the attempting to paint nuclear energy as a dangerous and risky power source. While, their arguments presented against nuclear energy may be grounded in fact, when the arguments are looked at as a whole obvious flaws in credibility emerge. In fact, the anti-nuclear group publicizes the nuclear energy as being unsafe by relying on such arguments as reactor accidents, disposal of high-level waste, cancers from radon [and an] increased risk of terrorism (Martin 3). Appropriately, evidence has been demonstrated against these claims made by the anti-nuclear group. First, reactors are designed to prevent a reactor incident by designing the containment building to maintain [containment] integrity at more than six atmospheres internal pressure (Beyea and Hippel 2). Second, there are solutions to nuclear waste such as reprocessing which could convert a years supply of spent fuel into a block of vitrified waste about three cubic meters in size (Nuclear energy 4). Furthermore, placing private corporations in charge of nuclear waste would lead to solutions being found of how to store nuclear waste (Spencer 5).

Nuclear Power: A Safe Form of Energy

Robert C. Taylor

Third, a study was conducted to determine the cancer incident from the Three Mile Incident found that the [radiation] leak [has] had no demonstrable effect on the health of anyone at the plant or in the surrounding area (Nuclear Energy 3). Additionally, a scientist estimated that the total number of deaths resulting from Chernobyl is less than the total number of deaths, caused by air pollution, resulting from the burning of coal (Nuclear Energy 3). Last, the increased risk of terrorism is eliminated by reprocessing the nuclear waste into a form incapable of being weaponized or by reprocessing the plutonium, contained in the waste, into MOX fuel [and] burning it in reactors (Choppin 7). Therefore, the argument made against the safety of nuclear energy is false. Lastly, the fear of nuclear energy is unnecessary because nuclear power plants are only getting safer. In fact, the safety of a nuclear plant is ensured before the plant is ever constructed because the design of the nuclear power plant undergoes probabilistic safety analysis (Rippon 2). By performing a probabilistic safety analysis, flaws in the design of the plant are located and the chance that the plant could cause an incident is assessed (Rippon 2). Indeed, before the design for a nuclear plant can be approved for construction, the design of the plant must meet the stiff requirement of having the probability of a meltdown damaging the reactor being no greater than 1 in years and the probability of a meltdown releasing radioactive material must be no years (Rippon 2). Furthermore, the safety of new reactors is further

greater than 1 in

enhanced by the inclusion of gravity fed cooling systems to prevent a loss of power ending in a meltdown (Rippon 3). Thus, in the unlikely event that the power to the active cooling systems is lost, the nuclear plant will still be able to cool the core and prevent the core from overheating. Additionally, in the event that a meltdown does breach the nuclear reactors internal pressure vessel, a core catcher awaits the overheated core which, according to Rippon, [will] divert the

Nuclear Power: A Safe Form of Energy

Robert C. Taylor

molten debris into a chamber where it can be effectively cooled to prevent overpressure in the containment (3). Consequently, this core catcher reduces the risk of a meltdown breaching containment and increases the overall safety of the nuclear power plant. Finally, the safety of new designs has been greatly improved by the betterment of the interface controlling the nuclear reaction. In fact, Rippon tells that [nuclear power plants make] extensive use of computerized implementation and control systems which are designed greatly to improve the man-machine interface (2). Consequently, by improving the interface between the operator and the nuclear plant, a much greater understanding is granted to the operator which allows the operator to run the plant much more safely. Therefore, with the risk of nuclear power demonstrated as minimal, and the misconceptions addressed, the overall safety of nuclear is shown to be very high. Neither is there a risk of a nuclear plant resulting in a nuclear explosion nor is there an unsolvable safety hazard presented by nuclear waste. Thus, the irrational phobia of nuclear energy should be discarded and the ambivalence toward the use of nuclear power remedied because nuclear energy is not a high risk technology. Additionally, the common arguments against nuclear safety, such as disposal of nuclear waste, nuclear meltdown, and nuclear proliferation, are shown as untenable. Thus, these facts imply that further questioning of the safety of nuclear energy is unnecessary because nuclear fission is a safe source to derive energy.

Nuclear Power: A Safe Form of Energy

Robert C. Taylor

Works Cited Aczel, Amir D. Uranium Wars. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009. Print. Beyea, Jan, and Frank Von Hippel. "Containment of a reactor meltdown." Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 38.7 (1982): 52-59. Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. Web. 7 Apr. 2011. Choppin, Gregory. "Technology for Nuclear Reprocessing: Present and Future Directions." Separation Science & Technology 41.10 (2006): 1955-1963. Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. Web. 8 Apr. 2011. Grier, Peter. "Meltdown 101: What is a nuclear reactor meltdown?" Christian Science Monitor 14 Mar. 2011. Gale Opposing Viewpoints In Context. Gale. Web. 19 Mar. 2011. Martin, Brian. "OPPOSING NUCLEAR POWER: PAST AND PRESENT." Social Alternatives 26.2 (2007): 43-47. Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. Web. 9 Apr. 2011. Nuclear Energy. Current Issues: Macmillian Social Science Library. Detroit: Gale, 2010. Gale Opposing Viewpoints In Context. Gale. Web. 16 Mar. 2011. Rippon, S. E. "Where next for nuclear power?." Proceedings of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers -- Part A -- Power & Energy 218.5 (2004): 277-282. Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. Web. 19 Mar. 2011. Spencer, Jack. "The Private Sector Should Manage Nuclear Waste." Nuclear and Toxic Waste. Ed. Stuart A. Kallen. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 2010. At Issue. Gale Opposing Viewpoints In Context. Gale. Web. 31 Mar. 2011.

Nuclear Power: A Safe Form of Energy

Robert C. Taylor

Nuclear Power: A Safe Form of Energy by Robert Christian Taylor is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

10