In 1950, the first commercial nuclear powerplants were constructed. The public was promiseda non-polluting and resourceful type of energy, buthow safe was, and is, nuclear energy? Althoughthere are less than 500 licensed nuclear powerplants in the world, many nuclear accidents havealready been endangering civilian lives. Moreserious accidents are not just likely, but inevitable(Fairchild 29). Nuclear energy may appear to bethe ideal source of energy for the future: however,there are many negative effects of nuclear energythat can lead to very dangerous situations. Energy has always been among the basic humanconcerns, along with food and shelter.
It takespart in all activities, from walking to the operationof even the most complicated equipment. Mankindhas been faced with the challenge of meeting itsenergy needs without risking human health and theenvironment. The many types of energy are mechanical, thermal,chemical, electrical, radiant, and atomic (MicrosoftEncarta). In 1987, oil supplied 32% of the energyworldwide. Coal was next in line with 26%, thennatural gas with 17%, biomass 15%, and nuclearenergy with only 4% (Galperin 19). With the mainsources of our energy running low, nations look tonew sources to provide our society with power.Order now
Nuclear energy, the newest type of energy, wasresearched to see if it would be the mostpromising type of energy for the future. Surprisingly, nuclear energy was discovered byaccident. In 1896, the French scientist, AntoineHenri Becquerel, conducted an experiment withuranium salts and found that these salts gave offtheir own light when exposed to sunlight. Marieand Pierre Curie were fascinated by thepossibilities of Becquerel’s rays. The Curiesdiscovered exactly what the rays were and thennamed the phenomenon radioactivity (Halacy 6). During World War II, many scientists from aroundthe world came to the United States to work onnuclear reactors and weapons.
With muchsuccess, they continued after World War II andconcentrated more on nuclear energy. Thescientists instantly saw that nuclear energy wouldbe a great source of power because of the amountof power it released. Splitting an amount ofuranium equal to one penny would produce asmuch energy as seven and a half tons of coal(Lilienthal 85). A nuclear power plant is where energy is formedwhen nuclear fission or fusion takes place. So far,however, only the power of fission has beencontrolled and used for energy.
There are manyparts of the nuclear power plant, including thereactor, generator, control room, cooling systems,and the electrical, air, and water lines. The heart ofthe nuclear power plant is its reactor core, whichcontains a few hundred fuel assemblies. Thereactor core is encased in a pressured steel tankwith walls several inches thick. In most reactors,this vessel is enclosed in a containment structure. This is a steel-reinforced concrete dome that isabout three feet thick and serves as the outermostbarrier between the plant and the environmentaround it. This helps prevent radiation fromescaping the plant (Galperin 42).
There are many different types of nuclear reactors,but all the power plants in the United States andmore than three-quarters of those worldwide arelight-water reactors. There are two types oflight-water reactors, which are boiling-water andpressurized-water reactors. Both types useordinary water as coolant and require enricheduranium (Microsoft Encarta). In boiling-water reactors, cooling water surroundsfuel assemblies.
The heat of nuclear fission makesthe water boil and the steam produced is carriedaway from the core to the turbines. Once its workis done, the steam is condensed to water and itreturns to the reactor (Galperin 44). The pressurized-water reactor is more commonlyused than the boiling-water reactor. This reactorseals the cooling water in a closed loop and addsa heat-exchange system.
Water in the reactor coregets hot, but it does not turn to steam. The hotwater is piped through a steam generator andconverts a secondary water supply into steam topower the turbine. The two water supplies do notmix (Galperin 45). A gas-cooled reactor is similar to apressurized-water reactor. The only maindifference is that helium or carbon dioxide gasreplaces the water in the primary loop. Thesereactors cost more to operate and to build, but aremore energy efficient (Galperin 46).
The last main type of reactor is a breeder-reactor. This is very different then other reactors because itproduces more fissionable material then itconsumes. A breeder reactor fuels with acombination of plutonium and uranium. A breederreactor would be extremely useful if uranium wasscarce. It takes about 10 to 60 years to use up thefuel from just one cycle (Galperin 46).
Radiation is very strong in the nuclear waste ofpower plants. Nuclear waste exists in severalforms. One form is called high-level waste, and theother is called low-level waste. High-level waste ismostly from the used fuel rods and other materialsexposed to as much radiation as they are. High-level wastes can let out very large amountsof radiation for thousands of years.
There is noplace to store this waste that is safe, and it willalways be radioactive. But for now, they arestored in the ground. Other proposed storingsolutions are sending it to space, burying it in thecore of the earth, burying it in the ocean, orburying it under the Antarctic ice. Even these ideashave the potential of severely damaging the earth. An example of low-level waste is the waste left inthe reactor water. This waste is less radioactive,but is still very dangerous (Galperin 65).
Two engineers in Connecticut have, not too longago, caught the Nuclear Regulatory Commission(NRC) in a dangerous game of disobeying therules. The NRC has been regularly disobeyingsafety rules to let plants keep the cost down andstay open to operate (Microsoft Encarta). Twosenior engineers started questioning after one ofthem had checked the specifications of the coolingsystem in a power plant. After eighteen months of operation, a nuclearpower plant is temporarily shut down.
They haveto get rid of the used fuel rods and replace themwith new ones. The old rods are very hot andradioactive. Places to store the old fuel rods arerather limited, especially since the federalgovernment has never designated an officialstorage place for this high-level waste. So wheredo you used fuel rods go? Used fuel rods are kept at a fuel pool at the plantuntil they can find a storage place for them.
Fuelpools were created to keep the fuel rods for shortperiods of time. The fuel pool is not supposed tobe filled to capacity. This is only to be a lastresort. In the fuel pool, a cooling system cools theused, hot, radioactive fuel rods. The more fuelrods that are stored, the more heat.
This, in turn,causes more danger. If the cooling system fails, thepool could boil, turning the plant into a lethal saunafilled with radioactive steam (Microsoft Encarta). George Galatis, an employee at Millstone-1Nuclear Facility, had been checking specificationsand realized that the reports of safety in the fuelpool had not been kept. He did some checking ofhis own on this, and discovered that the plant hadbeen putting almost three times as many fuel rodsin the fuel pool as they were supposed to. Hewanted to report this to the NRC right away, buthe knew that some nuclear facilities, like this one,was known to harass and even fire employeeswho raised safety concerns. Therefore, he teamedup with another employee at the plant, GeorgeBetancourt, and brought the issue up to thesupervisors of the plant.
They completely deniedthe problem. Galatis and Betancourt then took theproblem to the NRC themselves and found thatthe NRC had been ignoring the problem for over adecade. Nuclear facility scandals have not just beenhappening recently. They have been going on sincethe very beginning of nuclear energy.
The nuclearaccident of Chelyabinsk-40 is one of theearliest-known disasters. The Chelyabinsk-40reactor was located near the Ural Mountains in thecity of Kyshtym, Russia. A tank holdingradioactive gases exploded, contaminating landthousands of miles around the plant. Until 1988,Russia officials dared to admit that this event eventook place. Many things are still unknown aboutthis disaster.
What we do know, however, is thatthe region around the reactor is sealed, and morethan 30 towns in the area around it havedisappeared from the Soviet map (Galperin 74). In a town several miles north of Liverpool,England, there was the nuclear repossessing plantcalled Windscale. In 1957, the plant graphitemoderator overheated. The temperature indicatorsdid not recognize the problem in time, so a largeamount of radiation escaped, contaminating twohundred miles of countryside.
This accident is saidto have caused birth defects, cancer, and leukemiain many people who were near the site (Schneider4). In 1975, at Brown’s Ferry Nuclear Plant inDecatur, Alabama, there was another nuclearaccident. A maintenance worker was checking airleaks with a candle. This was against regulationsand caused the plant to catch on fire. A meltdownwas luckily prevented, but a worse disastercertainly could have happened (Galperin 75).
The worst nuclear accident in the United Statesoccurred in 1979 at Three Mile Island. Thisreactor was located in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Many of these reactors had poor safety recordsand an NRC inspector suggested that they beevaluated. Despite this inspector’s suggestion,nothing was done.
During the cleaning of a sectorof the plant, one pump failed which caused thetemperatures to rise in the cooling circuit. Thesafety devices had turned on and started to workproperly. However, after they cooled the circuit,the safety devices never turned off. Theyeventually used all the coolant and thetemperatures began to rise.
A meltdown beganand citizens started evacuating. It is uncertain howmuch radiation escaped into the air from it. Theplant then had to be cleaned up and sealed off. Part of this process is still going on, and theestimated cost upon completion is around twobillion dollars (Stephens 174). The Chernobyl nuclear disaster in Russia was theworst accident in nuclear history. It took threedays of meltdown for the nuclear plant officials toeven realize there was a problem.
The problemwas discovered when technicians in countriesbordering Russia noticed high radiation levels anddecided it was coming from Chernobyl. Explosions were shooting radiation into the airbecause Chernobyl was not built with acontainment structure. The radiation was carriedgreat distances by the air currents. The radiationthat escaped into the atmosphere was moreradioactive than the atomic bombs dropped onHiroshima and Nagasaki. Fires also ragedthroughout the complex, which made it hard tocontrol the situation. It was stated that five millionpeople were exposed to the radioactive fallout inUkraine, Belarus, and Russia.
Predictions weremade that 40,000 cases of cancer are going to belinked directly to the Chernobyl accident (Galperin82). Chernobyl and other accidents help create agrowing resistance to nuclear energy. This isbecause radiation sickness and other harmfuleffects from over-exposure to radiation haveoccurred. Every person in the world is exposed toradiation.
It comes from things such as potassiumin food, radon gases, and uranium decay. Theamount of radiation one is exposed to depends onlocation, eating habits, as well as many otherthings. Yet, too much radiation exposure isdefinitely fatal. How can nuclear power plants be trusted whenthey are more concerned with saving money, thenprotecting lives? They are violating safetystandards and the government is just watchingthem do it.
There are probably many otherviolations that are taking place to let the plantscontinue to operate and compete as a source ofpower. If the NRC suddenly decided to enforceall of its rules, then a majority of nuclear powerplants would have to be shut down. What do youbelieve holds more importance: saving money, orsaving lives? Nuclear energy displays both the brilliance of manand the devastating destruction that mankind cancause. The potential of nuclear energy has causedgreat excitement.
However, the destruction ofHiroshima and Nagasaki, as well as the manynuclear power plant accidents and the manydangers of radioactivity, have given the worldreason to pause and consider the dangerouspossibilities of nuclear disaster.