Natural Disasters in Nuclear Energy
Natural Disasters in Nuclear Energy
The modern day dependency on fossil fuels has led to a global search for ethical and environmentally-sound alternative energy. Among the most powerful is nuclear energy, though it is mired in controversy. This essay describes, among other things, the nuclear energy process, and with it the weaknesses. Amid the hope of one day using nuclear energy as a “green” energy source, there is much fear of devastation, due to the four main nuclear disasters in Earth’s history.
After the most recent nuclear disaster, Fukushima, Germany reversed their stance on nuclear energy, denouncing any future involvement with the research, development, and usage of nuclear energy. Every disaster and development can be considered part of a learning curve. The world has generally embraced nuclear power. Natural disasters should not cause hesitation in the research and development of nuclear energy but rather result in greater care and understanding for the policies and procedures surrounding nuclear energy research, development, usage and storage.
Natural Disasters in Nuclear Energy Development The controversy associated with the use of nuclear energy as a modern alternative to fossil fuels has much to do with the fear of natural disasters diminishing the structural integrity of nuclear power plants. This anxiety should not prevent scientists from pursuing nuclear energy as a clean, efficient alternative to fossil fuel consumption but rather place emphasis on the role of engineering and safety policies. The fear of natural disasters does not warrant the current hesitations in nuclear energy usage and development.
Ever since the discovery of coal in the middle ages as an “alternative energy” in lieu of wood, or the burning of whale oil to keep Victorian streets lit at night, humans have sought new energy sources to keep pace with the demands of everyday life in a modern world. An argument could be made that in many cases efficiency, a fundamental goal of capitalist market-driven economies, has taken a back seat to concerns about the environmental hazards and costs of using our current energy sources.
These concerns are valid, as modern day dependence on fossil fuels such as, oil, gas, and coal has led to the diminishment of Earth’s natural resources. Overuse of fossil fuels during the twentieth century has lent itself to a wide variety of natural events in increased potency and frequency. In light of global warming, ozone depletion, greenhouse gasses, air pollution, and soil erosion (all of which can be attributed to the increased levels of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere emitted by the burning of carbon-rich fossil fuels), scientists and environmentalists are eager to find environmentally-friendly, sustainable alternatives to meet the needs of a growing, electricity-hungry global population. Paul Harrison, an Australian energy enthusiast and author of History of Alternative Energy, has defined coined the new definition of alternative energy to, “an energy source that does not deplete or exhaust natural resources and does not harm the environment” (Harrison, 2009).
The global search for an ethical and environmentally-sound alternative energy source has been underway since the latter half of the twentieth century. This quest has given way to many breakthrough solutions that may one day yield fruitful results. Until that time, the alternatives proposed thus far fail to provide the quantity of energy needed at an affordable cost, delivered in an efficient, “green” manner. Hydrogen and nuclear are currently the only energy sources able to produce enough power to present a viable alternative to fossil fuels. Hydrogen is used mostly in the automobile industry due to its current inability to provide large sustainable power. The most powerful -nuclear energy – is mired in controversy. Amid the fear and terrifying threats of meltdown and devastation there is an underlying theme of hope. This hope arises from the tantalizing possibility of enduring deliverance from coal, oil, and other unsustainable fuels. Once we are liberated from our dependence upon fossil fuels, we can leap into the sustainable future nuclear power promises to provide.
Nuclear energy is created through a complicated scientific process. This process utilizes an amount of natural resources so small that it is by far the most productive form of alternative energy. Uranium deposits are found in rocks around the world. The rocks are crushed and then leached to dissolve the uranium. “Yellowcake” (uranum oxide U308) is precipitated out of the solution and converted into gaseous form. It is then enriched with the U-235 isotope, turned into pellets, and incased in long metal tubes known as fuel rods. These fuel rods comprise the core of a nuclear reactor. Water is poured over the reactor to regulate its temperature. During this part of the process, the water is converted to steam which is channeled through turbines, thus creating electricity (WNA, 2011).
The above mentioned process contains weaknesses. However, through planning, and error scientists have been able to minimize, if not even eliminate the treat level from these weaknesses. At the uranium mines, tailings are produced, which are the materials that can be left over after the mining process. During the operation of nuclear energy small amounts of radioactive isotopes are released. At the reactor site, spent nuclear fuel, including plutonium waste, is created. These materials when not processed correctly can lead to more serious accidents which can release large quantities of radioactive materials (WNA, 2011).
A significant draw-back of the energy generation process is the creation of radioactive wastes. Radioactive wastes are comprised of radioisotopes that in unstable form can emit radiation harmful to humans and the environment. Waste management has been the cause of much controversy as it is the most susceptible area for environmental hazard. The used fuel from a nuclear reactor is first stored to allow for most of the radioactivity to decay, since radioactivity diminishes over time (WNA, 2011).
There are currently two types of disposal, above ground and geological. With above ground disposal uses dry cask storage, which typically involves taking waste from a spent fuel pool and sending it in a steel cylinder, which is then placed in a concrete cylinder which acts as a radiation shield. This type of disposal is relatively inexpensive, and the waste can be retrieved for reprocessing. However, is extremely susceptible to leakage. Geological disposal is divided into two categories. The first deep final repository are located on a stable geologic formation and excavated to a shaft of around 500 to 1000 meters below the surface. The goal here is to permanently isolate nuclear waste from the human environment. The second is sea-based disposal here the radioactive waste is buried in a subduction zone beneath a stable abyssal plane.
The controversy of disposal is that some radioactive species have half-lives of longer than 1 million years, and even low leakage and radionuclide migration must be taken into account, which can remain toxic for up to a billion years, if not indefinitely (WNA, 2011). Discoveries in safety protocols have greatly decreased the likelihood of radiation leaks; however, there is always the possibility unforeseen circumstances could prompt a nuclear crisis (University of Melbourne, 2011). Though rare in occurrence, the fear of natural disaster has caused hesitation when governments consider the commission of a new power plant.
On September 2010, German Chancellor Angela Merkel announced that nuclear energy “is nothing more and nothing less than a revolution in energy supply” (Roan, 2011). She continued by outlining a plan that included the extension of operation within Germany’s 17 nuclear plants, which was meant to meet the ambitious goals of reducing the climate-killing CO2 emissions leaked into the environment when fossil fuels are converted into energy. However, only eight months later, May 30, 2011, Germany’s government announced a new energy plan. This new design called for a massive increase in the use of renewable energy, including incentives for the production and construction of new energy infrastructure.
Also included in the new policy was a recommendation that eight nuclear plants were to be shut down immediately and all German nuclear reactors would be offline by 2021. After much media and diplomatic pressure, Germany’s government released an explanation of their 180 degree turnaround. The recent policy changes were due to a greater understanding of the risks associated with nuclear power reactors. The German government stated, “Germany would be more powerful without nuclear energy” (Smith, 2011), leaving the interpretation of ‘powerful’ specifically unknown. This swift and dramatic policy change caused great concern and hesitation among world leaders who supported nuclear energy usage and development (Smith, 2011).
Germany’s stance was decided by an ethics committee established after the 2011 Fukushima disaster in Japan. The head of the commission, Klaus Topfer (former United Nations environmental program executive director) stated, The transition to renewable energy presented a ‘great opportunity’ for Germany to develop a sustainable economy… and the slightest possibility of a nuclear accident similar to the one in Fukushima – no matter how unlikely – was now to be classified as unacceptable (Smith, 2011, p.1).
Most German citizens oppose atomic energy and consider the new policy a road map for switching to a sustainable green energy supply. The general sentiment among Germans is that the elimination of nuclear energy will not only improve the environment, but will initiate movement beyond dangerous and expensive nuclear power and dirty coal (Smith, 2011).
The destructive potential of nuclear energy lives on in the minds of people the world over due to the infamous events of August 6th and 9th of 1945. These are the dates of the first and second atomic bombs, dropped on Japan (Hiroshima and Nagasaki, respectively). Though these actions ended World War II, they also prompted a decades-long race for the advancement and optimization of nuclear weapons capabilities. The Cold War established the need for world nuclear energy regulations.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) was established on July 29th, 1957. The IAEA is responsible for the promotion of the peaceful use of nuclear energy throughout the world, including military applications. The agency reports to the United Nations General Assembly and the Security Council under its own international treaty, the IAEA statute. The creation of the IAEA marked the beginning of the research and development phase for clean usage of nuclear energy began (IAEA, n.d.).
The need for military nuclear weapons overshadowed the need for safe policy and procedure throughout the duration of the Cold War. On September 29, 1957, the Soviet Union had the world’s first nuclear disaster – the Kyshtym Disaster at Mayak. Safety policies and procedures were secondary considerations at this time. Because of lax standards, a failed cooling system caused a manipulation in stored fuel rods, releasing 70-80 tons of lethal radioactive material into the environment. The Soviet Union was unwilling to allow the recently commissioned IAEA to complete a full investigation.
Therefore, the exact cause and the full breadth of the impact of this event on the local population are still unknown. The disaster was later classified as a level six serious disaster on the International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale (INES) (ANS, n.d.). Events like this give credence to the fear of nuclear power’s destructive potential. It should be noted, however, that this crisis was not caused by natural events and could have been easily avoided with the use of well-conceived engineering guidelines.
The second disaster occurred March 28, 1979, at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant, south of Harrisburg Pennsylvania, United States. A combination of design and operator error caused a gradual loss of coolant, leading to a partial meltdown. This disaster, which was later classified as a Level 5: Accident with wider consequences was only a disaster because of a lack of communication among both civilians, and government response crews. It took the United States regulatory commission (NRC) five days to understand and communicate the problem, by which time the small leak had already released 40,000 gallons of radioactive waste directly into the surrounding Susquehanna River (Johnston, 2011).
Though regulations surrounding nuclear energy development and usage were slowly increasing, and nuclear had not been used again for military purposes, on April 26, 1986 the third nuclear disaster in history occurred. A man-made power surge during a test procedure resulted in a series of fires and explosions releasing radioactive contamination across a large portion of Europe and the Western U.S.S.R. This Level 7: Major accident disaster, known as Chernobyl, is still to this day the greatest nuclear disaster in history.
The death toll reached 56, while the number of survivors diagnosed with cancer was over 4,000. More than 300,000 people were evacuated, and some land was abandoned permanently. As of 2011, parts of Britain and Norway, “slaughter restrictions remain for sheep raised on pasture contaminated by radiation fallout”, Germany has “banned wild game meat because of contamination linked to radioactive mushrooms” (Johnston, 2011, p.1.). The only nuclear disaster to date caused by a natural event occurred on Friday, March 11, 2011 at 14:46 Tokyo time. An earthquake registering 8.9 on the Richter scale startled the coast of Northeast Japan and sent a tsunami barreling through Japan’s Fukushima nuclear power plant.
Prior to Fukushima, every disaster brought to light the need for greater regulations and procedures in safety, communication, and disaster protocols among nuclear energy development and usage. In 1990, the International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale (INES) was developed to enable prompt communication of safety significance to disaster protocols, both swiftly and efficiently. Though Fukushima was classified a Level 7 on the INES, the radioactive fallout was nowhere near that of earlier nuclear events caused by operator error or lax safety provisions (IAEA, n.d.). The world has generally embraced nuclear power, in spite of the radical objection of nations such as Germany.
The community of scientists that produces nuclear energy has grown in its understanding of both the risks and rewards associated with the energy source. This paper has demonstrated that the positive effects of nuclear energy greatly outweigh the negative. The risks of failure, when radioactive materials are handled incorrectly, can be catastrophic. However, the history of nuclear energy has proven that development in science and technology can improve safety policies surrounding nuclear energy. By knowing weakness, the world can overcome. Natural disasters should not cause hesitation in the research and development of nuclear energy but rather result in greater care and understanding for the policies and procedures surrounding nuclear energy research, development, usage and storage.
University/College: University of Chicago
Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter
Date: 7 January 2017
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