In the wake of the earthquake in Japan and the resulting damage to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, many are questioning the safety of nuclear energy and whether the risks outweigh the rewards. Nuclear power currently comprises 20% of energy production in the United States and is a crucial component in meeting our country’s energy demands. Nuclear energy is more abundant than many other types of fuel, especially now that the world is recognizing that fossil fuels are indeed a finite resource. However, the production of nuclear energy can come with disastrous and long-lasting consequences if proper steps are not taken or if something beyond human control occurs, such as an earthquake. Nuclear technology has come a long way from the disasters at 3-Mile Island and Chernobyl and more “inherently safe” reactors are currently being developed; however, the impacts of potential nuclear meltdown are too large to ignore. Nuclear power plants are prime targets for enemy attacks, nuclear byproducts can be turned into nuclear weapons and the toxic materials produced must be stored somewhere secure so as to remain safely separated from human activity. My heart says that nuclear energy is quite beneficial because it helps ease our dependence on fossil fuels for energy, but my head says that the potential danger of nuclear energy is too great to ignore.
Landau, Elizabeth (2011), “Why (or why not) nuclear energy?” CNN.
Jason Speegle is the director of the Green Team.
There will come soft rain—reflections on all things nuclear
Nuclear energy, in all its forms, has been a presence in my life. When I was in grade school in the early 60s, we were taught the ‘Duck and Cover’ drill. In the event of an unexpected nuclear attack (which we were told could come anytime without warning), when we saw the flash, we were to stop what we were doing, drop to the ground, crawl under our desks (or any other nearby cover) and lie face down in the fetal position, covering our heads with our hands. This response, we were told, would protect us against the radiation from the attack–a claim I later learned was largely unfounded for anyone who could actually see the flash of an atomic bomb.
Later, in college in the 70s, I studied the history of nuclear testing, first in New Mexico for the Manhattan project, then in Bikini tests in the Marshall Islands and the parade of later tests that resulted in above ground contamination from nuclear fallout. The worst nuclear accident in US history occurred in 1954, the year I was born. That year, the US was conducting the Castle Bravo test of a new form of hydrogen bomb in the Marshall Islands, a group of islands in the South Pacific. Scientists underestimated the violence of the bomb’s reaction. The explosion and the accompanying nuclear fallout were more than twice as powerful as anticipated, and changes in the weather patterns caused the fallout plume to spread in unexpected directions over hundreds of miles. The fallout contaminated island populations that had not been evacuated and resulted in radiation burns (immediately) as well as the more long-term effects of radiation contamination (increase in cancer rate & birth defects) in the area. Contamination from tests such as Castle Bravo led to an international treaty to ban above-ground testing, signed by most countries in the 60s but not fully observed until the 80s. Once above ground testing had been banned, barring nuclear war, I thought the world’s population was safe from nuclear contamination.
One spring evening in 1979, I went to see The China Syndrome, which depicts an accident at a nuclear plant and takes its name from the speculation that if a nuclear reactor in the US were to melt down completely, it would burn all the way through the earth to China. After the movie, my friends and I reminisced about our duck and cover drills, and expressed a healthy skepticism about the China syndrome phenomenon. The next morning I woke up to the news that during the night, radiation had leaked into the air after a partial core meltdown at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania, and for a few days, the US held its breath. By the time Chernobyl released its deadly fumes into the air in the 80s, I was well-acquainted with the hazards of the nuclear age, the inevitability of human error when dealing with those hazards and the deception about radiation release that accompanied them. I had also learned that the release of radiation was not the only risk from this new form of nuclear energy—the nuclear power plant.
Clearly, nuclear power is a clean alternative to coal and oil. Admittedly, the accidents have been few and relatively far between. However, the danger of radiation leaks is just part of the problem. Spent fuel rods and other forms of nuclear waste from nuclear power plants are radioactive forever, in human terms—thousands of years. We have no really good plan for disposal of nuclear waste, which is proliferating. Although recent developments in plants that make nuclear power minimize the waste, all the power plants in the US were built in the 70s. They continue to produce waste—waste we have no real place for. Although the immediate concerns created by events such as the ones that have just occurred in Japan are upsetting, the long-term risks of producing nuclear energy are perhaps more sobering.
Because of the short-term safety concerns and long-term disposal concerns, I am opposed to the continued development of nuclear power. Currently operating nuclear plants should be retired; scientists and engineers should focus on the development of green alternatives. We only have one planet, and we are short-sighted if we continue to expend nuclear energy and create waste that will still be dangerous a thousand years from now, “…visiting the iniquity of fathers on the children and on the grandchildren to the third and fourth generations.”
Michelle Boucher is an associate professor of English.
There is no simple yes or no answer as to whether nuclear energy is safe. All energy sources come with their own level of risk as evidenced by recent events such as the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and the earthquake and tsunami in Japan. Nuclear power plants are very complex and are built with multiple safety systems, but it is impossible to plan for every possible scenario so the risk can never be zero. This has become abundantly clear after recent events in Japan. Engineers will learn from the failures in Japan and that will lead to better designs for nuclear power plants, but as noted earlier all risk cannot be eliminated.
Society faces an important question of how it will provide for future electricity needs. The answer to that question will likely be a mixture of different energy sources and the increased use of nuclear power is one option under consideration. Society will ultimately decide what level of risk is acceptable after considering various choices. This emphasizes the need for an informed citizenry when issues such as nuclear power come to the forefront. I would encourage everyone in the SC community to keep up with energy related issues by gathering as much information as possible from unbiased sources. The best decision will be the informed one.
I provided two links below that will help you learn some of the basics about nuclear energy. One is a CBS news clip on how nuclear power plants operate and what went wrong at Fukushima Daiichi. The other is a website that describes how nuclear power plants work and discusses some pros and cons. CBS News Video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gch0z456Ohc and How Stuff Works: http://science.howstuffworks.com/nuclear-power.htm
Michael Tessmer is a professor of chemistry.