Nuclear Power: Risks and Rewards
When the brilliant scientists of the Manhattan Project at long last unlocked the power of the atom, they saw potential far beyond the bombs they built and tested. Instead of being used for destruction, nuclear fission is used to generate electricity. Since the 1940s, nuclear power has become a big part of the American energy picture. In fact, according to the Nuclear Energy Institute, there are currently 104 operating reactors in the United States. In 2009, these facilities accounted for 20% of the electricity used by Americans.
Of course, with great benefits come great risks. There are indeed significant dangers that come with the use of nuclear power. When one thinks of the dangers of nuclear power plants, the Three Mile Island accident comes to mind. The most serious mishap of its kind in the United States, the Three Mile Island incident was a big reason that no new nuclear reactors have been built in decades. The facility, located in Middleton, Pennsylvania, suffered a partial meltdown, meaning that operators lost control over the fission. Three Mile Island captured the imagination of the country thanks in part to a popular movie based upon the events. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission asserts that, in spite of the amount of amount of radiation released, those who lived near the plant were exposed to only 1 millirem of radiation. A chest x-ray exposes a person to 6 millirems.
The risks of nuclear power plants were brought back into popular consciousness by the nuclear crisis caused by the earthquake and tsunami that occurred on March 11, 2011. Japan, a relatively small country that controls relatively small quantities of coal and oil, has come to rely a great deal on nuclear energy. As the tsunami washed over the northern islands of Japan, massive quantities of water engulfed the Fukushima Daiichi power plant. The Japanese are accustomed to dealing with the effects of earthquakes and tsunamis and have built many safeguards into their plants. Unfortunately, the massive wall of water generated by the tsunami was too much for the safeguards to handle. Ordinarily, water is pumped into a nuclear reactor in order to keep the fuel cool. The primary pumps at the Fukushima Daiichi facility were knocked out, then backup diesel generators followed. Specialists from around the world rushed to Japan in hopes of minimizing the damage caused by the incident, still, radiation from the reactor has spread and will continue to spread for some time.
Meltdown is probably the primary and most visible risk of nuclear reactors. In one of these plants, rods made of radioactive material are used to heat water. The resulting steam is funneled to a turbine, generating electricity. Workers must be able to raise and lower the rods according to the amount of energy present in the system. During meltdown, operators are unable to control the radioactive rods (usually consisting of uranium-235). The runaway fission causes a massive release of radioactivity. Bernard L. Cohen, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh, estimates that a reactor meltdown can be expected once in 20,000 years of operation. In addition to the rarity of these accidents, the health effects are lower than one might think. Even when you consider the worst possible accident, an individual's cancer risk would only increase .5%. (The national average is 20%.)
Radioactive waste is another big concern of nuclear plant operation. Once the uranium is no longer of use in the reactor, it must be disposed of in a safe and secure manner. The challenge grows greater when you consider that nuclear waste will continue to be radioactive for thousands of years. In order to reduce the health risks caused by this waste, it is stored in secluded facilities. Some of these depositories are located deep inside mountains. Not only is the radioactivity trapped inside, but the waste is inaccessible to people who might try to harm others. Government authorities are well aware of the threat of a so-called “dirty bomb.” It would be somewhat difficult for terrorists to obtain a real nuclear bomb; some believe the damage would be far greater if radioactive waste were simply detonated inside a conventional bomb.
The risks of nuclear power are certainly significant. The incident at the Fukushima Daiichi reactor has caused many Congressional legislatures to rethink their positions regarding new plants built on American soil. You should remain confident, however, that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and other bodies take all threats very seriously and plan very carefully for these dangers. It's also easy to forget all the benefits of nuclear power when contemplating the risks. American reactors have provided citizens with countless megawatts of electricity, just like the plants in the Big Apple have provided countless megawatts of New York electricity at a relatively low cost and will continue to do so well into the future.