Nuclear Power

Common Cure or Inexcusable poison?

Brant Bagnall 12/9/08

Have you ever thought about the U.S. energy crisis? Have you thought of the many solutions to the energy crisis? Of the many solutions one of the best is Nuclear Power Plants. Unfortunately a great percentage of the population of the United States of America associate nuclear power plants with the emission of dangerous gases and radiation. That fear is also associated with potential for operating accidents and terrorist attacks because the uranium used in production is used in tools of mass destruction. In addition to these concerns there is an ever growing fear of the effects on the environment. This is considered an environmental price in addition to the high price of building the power plants and producing Nuclear Energy. However, a close scrutiny of the facts will show that Nuclear Energy is viable, safe and cost-effective. Many people think that coal is cheaper, safer and more abundant than uranium fuel power plants. However coal as a source of energy comes with a dangerous cost. Coal-fired power plants emit greenhouse gases that cause a lot of pollution. A lot of which surprisingly is radiation, one of the biggest arguments against nuclear power plants. But in fact if your friend lived next to a nuclear power plant and you next to a coal-fired power plant you would take in more radiation than your friend! (ORNL, 1). That is because of coal ash which in fact contains silicon, aluminum, iron, calcium, magnesium, titanium, sodium, potassium, arsenic, mercury, and sulfur [oxide] and a small amount of uranium and thorium. (ORNL, 1). Most notable of which are arsenic, mercury, and sulfur and that small amount of uranium and thorium which are dangerous on their own. Arsenic is poisonous, Sulfur [oxide] contributes to acid rain and mercury, uranium

and thorium are radioactive. (ORNL, 1). That ash gets in the air and spreads everywhere. Coal doesn’t seem so nice now does it? “And now we know that all the time, people everywhere are absorbing radioactive materials and radiation like mad.” (Gwyneth Cravens, 66). It’s interesting that people look at something and right away label it, like how people immediately label radiation as some horrid death creating tool. Radiation comes from daily objects like a cell phone, a microwave, or the sun. The definition of radiation is energy that travels in the form of waves or high speed particles. (EPA [2], 1). So radiation is light that is moving in a wave like fashion. There are also multiple kinds of radiation. Some kinds affect us and others don’t. There are Alpha Particles, Beta Particles, Gamma Rays, X-Rays, and Neutrons. Alpha and Beta particles cant affect us but the rest can. (N.R.C.). “Because our bodies are mostly empty space, radiation usually passes through us uneventfully.” (Gwyneth Cravens, 66). Our bodies are well equipped to handle radiation exposure. (Gwyneth Cravens, 26). Even though you may think that radiation will turn you into some mutated monster our bodies easily handle sunburns. The next time you get a sunburn and you turn into a zombie you tell me. Luckily most of the radiation is contained inside of a nuclear power plant, unless of course the core melts down which is probably the worst thing that can possibly happen in a nuclear power plant. The good news is that this has only happened twice. Chernobyl is one of the two notable instances where the core melted. Chernobyl was a Russian nuclear power plant where one of the three reactors had a complete meltdown. This was caused when the operators had to test some

of the non nuclear parts of the plant. The operators had to disconnect some of the safety circuits and, additionally, had to put the reactor into a very unstable condition. Once the test was finished they decided to bring it back to full working power. As they tried to do this the reactor’s uranium underwent super-criticality. Super-criticality is dangerous because the uranium absorbs too many neutrons and sends out to much energy. This was caused when the absorbing rods where pulled out to quickly. The job of the rods is to control how many neutrons the uranium atom absorbs in a certain amount of time, usually it allows one neutron at a time. Since the rods where pulled out too quickly there were billions of fissions happing at once. There was also a large amount of energy released, which heated the core substantially more than required. The water around the fuel was instantly turned into steam. This caused the core to heat up and pressurized and several pipes to burst. The burst pipes made the reactor impossible to control. As all this was happening several of the graphite blocks that were used to make the core caught fire. The safety regulations were not as good as they are now so the walls of the power plant where inches thick. That allowed several products to be blasted through the walls of the plant. This spread radiation everywhere. (H.P.S.). Three Mile Island was the only other accident that is notable. The Three Mile Island accident was in 1979 and it was started by equipment failure and operator’s lack of training. There was a slow loss of cooling fluid to the heat producing core. It led to a partial melting of the fuel rod cladding and the actual uranium fuel. It released a very small amount of radioactive material in the process but nothing too bad. It was later found out that

the amount of the material was too small to affect the population in a noticeable way. No operators or citizens were hurt in the process. (H.P.S.). Another of the other major problems the public sees with nuclear power is the possibility of terrorist getting a hold of nuclear material from the power plant. That is almost impossible. Yes they can try but nothing short of taking out an entire city’s communication array or trying to invade the U.S. with a sizable army will work. The security before 9/11 was tough but now almost all dangerous industries have had major overhauls in security including nuclear plants. Even if the terrorists got their hands on it they would have to enrich the nuclear substance into at the very least 20%. Alan M. Herbst says “[Highly Enriched] Uranium that contains the isotope uranium 235 in a concentration of 20% or more. Naturally occurring uranium has a uranium 235 content of about 0.7%.” (ANL). To enrich uranium you have to add the isotope U-235 so it’s a certain percent of the uranium. The problem with the enrichment process is that it is a very complicated and long process. Alan M. Herbst said “A sample of U-235 must be enriched to a concentration of at least 2 to 3 percent to be viable as fuel for civilian nuclear reactors in the production of electricity; while weapons-grade uranium [Highly Enriched Uranium] is generally composed of 90% or more of U235 (these greater concentrations are achieved through very complex, largescale uranium enrichment operations).” (Alan M. Herbst, 129). He also stated “A Radiological dispersal device (RDD) or ‘dirty bomb’ is a conventional explosive, such as dynamite, accompanied by radioactive material. When such a device is detonated, the radioactive material would be spread to the surrounding area.”

(Alan M. Herbst, 160). A dirty bomb is meant to spreads radiation as a way of frightening people psychologically it is not meant to physically hurt people. (Alan M. Herbst, 160). It quickly dissipates and is generally not a problem aside from the fact that it causes mass panic. Behind the background radiation, the radiation that is spread by the dirty bomb is not even noticeable as stated earlier in this report. There are a lot of ways to create energy. Some are better then others, and some are just down right disgustingly horrible, like coal. All ways to create to create energy leave some kind of byproduct. For instance as stated before on the second paragraph, coal emits greenhouse gases when burnt. Also stated earlier Coal and Uranium emit radiation when used to create energy. The problem is that depleted or used Uranium is left after the plant is done using the Uranium pellet. The good side is we have a large amount of uranium inside this country right now. The E.P.A. stated that “In 2003, the U.S. Uranium ore reserves were estimated at about 890 million pounds” (E.P.A.). That is very good considering how much uranium is used in a 2 years of power producing period. The U.S. has very rigorous laws pertaining to the use of uranium in Nuclear Power Plants. The E.P.A. states that “Every 18 to 24 months nuclear power plants must shut down to remove and replace the ‘spent’ Uranium fuel” (E.P.A.). This leads us to another problem where to put this ‘spent’ fuel. “For fifteen years the U.S. high-level waste management program has focused almost exclusively on the proposed repository site at yucca mountain in Nevada” (MIT, 20). That could be a very bad thing if others got a hold of that material. But the good news is that “Dry soil and

Rock can immobilize Radio nuclides that might escape…” (Gwyneth Cravens, 314). So the storage there is safe. As stated they radiation cannot escape into nearby areas. That brings use back to the amount of waste. Gwyneth Cravens said “If you could go to the visitor center at Oconee, and you had time to see only one display, it should be the one of the little metal rod less than an inch long, identical to one I first saw in a uranium mill. It’s a pellet of uranium dioxide that weighs about as much as three pennies and produces the energy equivalent of nearly a ton of coal.” (Gwyneth Cravens, 314). The price of a plant is a bit of a problem. Something that antinuclear associations talk about is the ‘price’ tag of the power. These associations forget to mention one thing though, they figure into the price all the insurance that is needed to build the plant. Gwyneth Cravens said that “More than $10 billion in liability insurance has accumulated for the use in the event of a reactor incident.” (Gwyneth Cravens, 214). In other words the reactors are already insured in case something bad happens. This is regulated by The Price-Anderson act and has worked extremely well for as long as the U.S. has had it. Another Quote from Gwyneth Cravens is “Under the Price-Anderson Act the public has paid nothing…” (214). As surprising as it sounds it is true, not one person from the public has paid. But think about what could happen if each person in the United States donated a small amount of money to fund Nuclear Power plants. It could save our country from an ever growing need for energy. The fact is that we do have enough funds to build plants over and over again from the Price-Anderson Act. Another unseen cost is the cost to the environment. We have and will see oil

and coal destroy our country and our lives, but what will Nuclear power do? “The European Union has found nuclear power’s external costs regarding the environment and public health care lower than those of coal, gas, and solar power. In terms of avoidance of damages related to ecosystems and global warming that cost money, nuclear power is on par with renewables.” (Gwyneth Cravens, 214) A lot of what environmentalists complain about is the fact that it will destroy ecosystems filled with wildlife. The fact is that every coal-fired plant destroys many other ecosystems then it is currently situated in. In conclusion Nuclear power is a very clean way to go about making energy. It does not emit any greenhouse gas, and does not emit much radiation as long as the plant is up to code and operating properly. Most of the mistakes that led to disaster were made by untrained humans not the machines. Also radiation is safer than many people consider, since you’re mostly empty space and you come in contact with it every day. National security isn’t much of a problem because of heightened security and the concentration of isotope U-235 is not high enough in power grade uranium. Nuclear Energy is cost effective the only big cost is the cost of waiting any longer and allowing other sources of energy to have a negative impact on our environment. As has been discussed many of the perceived problems with Nuclear Energy comes from a lack of education and emotion-based prejudices. Nuclear Energy is viable, safe and cost-effective. Ignorance is the source of many of the problems people think of when they think of Nuclear Energy. Instead they should think of all the benefits and look past their misconceptions about Nuclear Energy.

Works Cited
ANL. "Glossary." Argonne National Laboratory. Argonne National Laboratory. 11/30/2008 <>. Cravens, Gwyneth. Power To Save The World. 1st. New York: Random House, 2007. Enviromental Protection Agency. "Nuclear Energy." Enviromental Protection Agency. E.P.A.. 11/29/2008 <>. E.P.A. (2). "Radiation and Radioactivity." Enviromental Protection Agency. August 27 2008. Enviromental Protection Agency. 11/29/2008 <>. Health Physics Society. "Nuclear Accidents." Health Physics Society. July 2 2008. Health Physics Society. 11/27/2008 <>. Herbst, Alan M., and Geourge W. Hopley. Nuclear Energy Now. 1st. Jhon Wiley and Sons, 2007. MIT. "The Future of Nuclear Power." The Future of Nuclear Power. 2003. School. 18/10/2008 <>.

N.R.C.. "Radiation." Nuclear Regulatory Commission. May 6 2008. Government. 8 Dec 2008 <>. ORNL. "Coal Combustion: Nuclear Resource or Danger?." Coal. 2/5/08. Government. 18/14/2008 <>.

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