A minor news item featured in MSNBC last month, from which the above excerpt is taken, talks about a 38-year-old aging nuclear power plant in the state of Vermont that is still efficient but appears to pose increasing threat to the environment. The local and state authorities want it to be decommissioned, but the owner of the plant, Entergy corp. , intends to run it for another 20 years. The plant meets one-third of the state’s electricity needs, and the people of Vermont are very much dependent on it for the electricity, of course.
But at the same time they have grown distrustful of the quality of management at the plant and the plant’s viability. The future of this plant may not be a national or international concern, but it is a crucial issue for the local people. The fundamental dilemma of the situation here reflects, in microcosm, the vastly larger problem of the future of nuclear-generated electricity as such: should we enthusiastically embrace it or wisely abjure it?
Many of the rapidly developing countries of the world, especially, tend to be upbeat about the potential of nuclear power, while in some of the developed countries where nuclear power has been put to use for generating electricity for several decades now there has been an increasing degree of opposition to the continued reliance on nuclear power, from the point of view of threats it poses to the environment. As in the case of Vermont Yankee power plant, the basic conflict in the nuclear power sector is between the potential and the potential risk.
The Vermont facility has still the potential to supply a large fraction of the state’s electricity needs for a couple of decades more which is by no means a mean feat, but there are signs, such as the recent tritium leak detected at the plant, of the decreased reliability and robustness of the plant. The Vermont news story provokes the question: Can nuclear power plants be robust and reliable in general? The rewards they proffer may outweigh the risks they pose, but even so, do the rewards far outweigh the risks so that the risks – to the extent they are present – can be considered acceptable?
A number of countries of the world have benefitted from nuclear power for several decades now with only one major disaster to speak of so far. But how many closely averted disasters such as the Three-Mile Island incident of 1979 there might have been — it is difficult to estimate. Because, as can be seen in the case of Vermont facility, there is apparently a widespread culture of “leaks and lies” in the nuclear power sector, which tends to neatly cover up inefficiencies, mismanagement, breaches, increased risks and so on.
The world’s experience with nuclear-generated electricity so far could be seen as a trial or an experiment, based on which we are compelled to take decisions regarding the future of nuclear power. Should the world’s reliance on nuclear power be dramatically expanded, as advocated by many nuclear power enthusiasts and as was initially expected when nuclear power technologies were developing in the 1950’s? Or, should we gradually phase out our dependence on nuclear power and switch to much safer alternatives, or should a middle way be adopted?
There are many well-informed people who would like to see all nuclear power plants shut down — how far are their fears valid? Literature Review: 1) Massachusetts Institute of Technology. (2003, 2009) The Future of Nuclear Power: An Interdisciplinary Study. Retrieved from http://web. mit. edu/nuclearpower/ The experts at MIT “believe” in nuclear power and prominently emphasize the chief advantage of absence of carbon emissions in its production. This study takes a comprehensive, interdisciplinary approach to assessing the feasibility of nuclear power.
While the basic stance of MIT favors the increased use of nuclear power, the risks are not downplayed. The issues that the nuclear industry faces are tackled in a clear and detailed way. The study does succeed in inspiring confidence in the potential of nuclear power. Though the fears and concerns are not really eliminated, they are not simply vague forebodings of doom now but are based on actual facts and conditions. The challenges can be dealt with, in principle, with more commitment and initiative. 2) Biello D. (2009). The Future of Nuclear Power: An In-depth Report.
Scientific American. Retrieved from http://www. scientificamerican. com/report. cfm? id=nuclear-future This is a 4-part in-depth report featured in the Scientific American magazine in early 2009. The first report, “Find Fissile Fuel,” explores the issue of availability of uranium and other raw materials for nuclear power. The second report, “Reactivating Nuclear Reactors for the Fight against Climate Change,” examines the ongoing escalation in nuclear power production in the U. S. “Spent Nuclear Fuel,” the third part, deals with the major issue of nuclear waste management.
The final report, “Atomic Weight: Balancing the Risks and Rewards of a Power Source,” asks the question: “Is it worth the minor chance of a major catastrophe? ” 3) Department of Trade and Industry, U. K. (2007). The Future of Nuclear Power: The Role of Nuclear Power in a Low Carbon UK Economy. Retrieved from www. berr. gov. uk/files/file39197. pdf This is a UK government white paper / consultation document on the relevance of nuclear power in addressing the issues related to global warming and climate change and ensuring continued energy supplies.
Though it is a document of advice and information provided to the UK government to help it make decisions, a consideration of the particularities of the UK situation can be useful in more general contexts. In the UK, nuclear power is already making a significant contribution to the ‘electricity generating mix’ and this paper is inclined to the view that it could make an even more prominent contribution. 4) Mahaffey, J. (2009). Atomic Awakening: A New Look at the History and Future of Nuclear Power. New York : Pegasus Books
Mahaffey, a senior research scientist at Georgia Tech Research Institute, has written a book meant to interest laymen about nuclear power and its possibilities. He wants to show us that nuclear energy is not the monster it is portrayed to be; while the risks cannot be completely mitigated it can still be used in a very safe manner. One of the barriers to greater acceptance of nuclear power is the general unfamiliarity of the subject, the degree of alienation between the common man and the tall-standing nuclear reactors.
The author seeks to bridge this gap by familiarizing his audience with the subject in an entertaining and engaging manner, largely in a historical perspective. 5) Smith, J & Beresford, N. A. (2005). Chernobyl: catastrophe and consequences. New York : Springer The public perception of nuclear power has radically changed after the Chernobyl tragedy. Ever since, people living in the vicinity of a nuclear power plant are naturally beset with fears that their installation does not turn out to be another Chernobyl. And if a nuclear facility is actually having some known problems, as in the case of Vermont, these fears are vastly exacerbated.
In this context it is very pertinent to understand what caused Chernobyl and assess how likely is it for a similar disaster to happen again, for broadly similar reasons. Smith and Beresford’s detailed yet uncomplicated account of the Chernobyl incident is useful for developing a mental picture of the events that led to the 1986 mishap, what really occurred and how it was handled. Methodology: This short paper is built around a minor incident at Vermont’s nuclear power plant and the public reaction to it — with the aim of examining the broader implications of nuclear power to the future of the world.
We propose to survey the works cited in the literature review in order to glean the opinions and standpoint of their authors in regard to the risks and rewards presented by the use of nuclear power. A special focus is laid on the Chernobyl incident. Results: — The MIT study of 2003, later updated in 2009, is the one of the most authoritative studies in this field. It begins with what would appear like a sad note that despite the great promise nuclear power holds in regard to significantly restricting earth’s green house emissions, nuclear power is virtually facing stagnation.
It recommends a tripling of world’s nuclear generating capacity of the world by 2050 in order to turn around the situation of decline. Doing so would help in cutting 25% of the increment in greenhouse gas emissions which would occur if such a resurgence of nuclear power did not take place. The safety of modern reactor designs is considerably superior to those of the earlier models, and there is very low risk of serious accidents. However, the very low risk associated with modern nuclear reactors holds true only when their operation implements “best practices. ”
Proliferation is another major concern in regard to nuclear power generation. With increased use of nuclear power, there is increasing likelihood of misuse of raw materials and technology for manufacturing nuclear weapons. The existing international safeguards regime is far from being adequate, according to the report, to meet the greater security challenges of a global growth in nuclear usage. Especially, the kind of reprocessing system that is used in a majority of nuclear power using countries, including European Union, Japan and Russia, poses unwarranted risks of proliferation.
Waste management is yet another major area of concern. Closed fuel cycles involving reprocessing are generally considered to offer waste management benefits, but the study is not convinced of their benefits; improved open fuel cycles can offer just as many benefits and they present diminished security threats along with decreased costs. The study therefore recommends open, once-through fuel cycles for facing both security and waste management challenges in a better way.
However, the international safeguards regime needs to be improved, and greater efforts have to be put in by the government and the private enterprise to develop better solutions for the waste disposal problem. Apart from the safety, proliferation, and waste management concerns, the fundamental issue in regard to nuclear power is the cost, which is not yet competitive with the other conventional modes of power generation. However, even this problem is not insurmountable, and various strategies are suggested to increase the economic feasibility of nuclear power.
Finally, forebodings and misguided perceptions among the public present a great barrier for creating a movement to expand the world’s nuclear power capacity. This, the report suggests, can be dealt with by implementing an intensive program of public education. — The 4th part of Scientific American’s in-depth feature on the future of nuclear power covers many risky scenarios faced by the American nuclear power sector in the past few decades. The report leads us to conclude that the future of nuclear power in the US largely depends on the quality of management of the nuclear installations.
So far the US has a rather impressive track record in running the nuclear facilities, and this consistency is likely to continue. — A chapter in the UK white paper on the future of nuclear power addresses the specific safety and security risks posed by nuclear installations. It stresses on the additional safety features added to the latest models of nuclear reactors: Designers of nuclear power stations have taken this earlier operational experience and learned lessons from previous nuclear events. They have added features to reduce the likelihood of plant failures and to limit the consequences when failures occur.
(p. 105) From design to operations and maintenance, rigorous procedures can be developed, and in fact have been developed, which make nuclear energy one of the best options for meeting the electricity needs of UK and Europe. — Mahaffey, in his book ‘Atomic Awakening’ raises many interesting points. He observes, for example, that Chernobyl caused only 55 to 60 deaths (most of them being fire fighters exposed to lethal doses of radiation), whereas the Bhopal incident which took place in 1984 in India killed over 15,000 of the city’s inhabitants.
Despite the overblown public fears, the safety record of the nuclear industry world wide is relatively very solid. There is no reason why people should fear nuclear power generation more than they fear many other processes to do with advanced technology. Seen from a safety perspective, nuclear power plants are like airlines: a single disaster can create great fear among the public for air travel, but when we look at the statistical record of safety of airlines and compare them with road transport, airplanes turn out to be vastly safer than cars.
— In the early hours of April 26, 1986, a massive nuclear reactor accident took place at the Chernobyl Power Plant in Ukraine. A small test procedure that was being conducted went completely out of control, resulting in two non-nuclear explosions that demolished the heavy ceiling of the reactor and expelled the radioactive contents and waste products of the reactor’s core into the surroundings. Chernobyl is the worst nuclear disaster in the history. It has cast a heavy shadow on the entire nuclear industry which continues to darken the horizons.
But we must note that the Chernobyl disaster is a result of bad design compounded by bad management practices and a work culture which flouted all safety considerations. One safety feature after another was deliberately suppressed in order to facilitate the test procedure; serious warnings were callously disregarded. The Chernobyl meltdown occurred as a result of operator incompetence on a huge scale, as was acknowledged by the Soviet official report of the disaster. A group of technicians are directly responsible for this disaster, and they committed six serious violations or errors besides many others.
Many of the operators as well as managers in charge at Chernobyl actually knew very little about nuclear technology. Moreover, there were certain high-risk features associated with the RBMK design of the Chernobyl reactors. A Chernobyl can never happen in the Western world because the minimal industrial standards here are far superior to those that prevailed in the Soviet Union during the last years of its existence. Conclusion: Nuclear power plants have been safe and would continue to be safe — in the context of advanced nations.
But the real problem comes when we consider nuclear energy in the setting of the developing nations of Asia, Africa and Latin America. All the studies we have dealt with so far focus on the U. S. , U. K. and the E. U. How would nuclear power fare in the volatile developing countries is in fact even difficult to outline even in broad terms. The major obstacle for the Third World Countries in embracing nuclear power is the cost. However, in a bid to develop environment-friendly energy sources, Western nations are engaged in bringing down the costs of production of nuclear power.
If they succeed, nuclear power production can spread rapidly in the developing countries of the world, and this can have potentially highly adverse consequences. A Chernobyl can never happen in the U. S. or Europe, but it can very well happen in Angola or Pakistan or Columbia. References: Associated Press. Vermont Town Halls Want Nuclear Plant Shut. MSNBC. Retrieved from http://www. msnbc. msn. com/id/35687805 Biello D. (2009). The Future of Nuclear Power: An In-depth Report. Scientific American. Retrieved from http://www. scientificamerican. com/report. cfm? id=nuclear-future Department of Trade and Industry, U. K. (2007).
The Future of Nuclear Power: The Role of Nuclear Power in a Low Carbon UK Economy. Retrieved from www. berr. gov. uk/files/file39197. pdf Massachusetts Institute of Technology. (2003, 2009) The Future of Nuclear Power: An Interdisciplinary Study. Retrieved from http://web. mit. edu/nuclearpower/ Mahaffey, J. (2009). Atomic Awakening: A New Look at the History and Future of Nuclear Power. New York : Pegasus Books Smith, J & Beresford, N. A. (2005). Chernobyl: catastrophe and consequences. New York : Springer