by Dr. Amy Wiesner
In light of the devastating earthquakes and tsunami in Japan, and the damage done to the nuclear power plant in the affected area, it seems important to have as many facts as possible regarding the consequences of the nuclear plant’s breakdown.
Nuclear energy was first discovered just before World War II, when scientists experimented with splitting atoms to create large amounts of energy, or fission. Initially in the US, this new technology was solely used in a military capacity, but after the war, continuing experimentation was accomplished via the Atomic Energy Commission to find nonviolent uses of nuclear energy, including using it for electricity. The first nuclear energy plant in the US became operational in 1957 and more plant construction quickly followed.
Nuclear power was thought to be both economically prudent and environmentally safe. Nuclear power is a clean source of electricity in that it doesn’t produce any carbon dioxide (CO2), unlike coal and oil whose byproduct is CO2. CO2 emissions are the leading cause of greenhouse gases. In addition, it is considered a dense form of energy meaning that, for the amount of energy produced at single plant, it doesn’t take a lot of uranium to create that energy. It is also economically competitive with the other main sources of energy in the US.
To date, 104 plants are actively used in the US alone, supplying 20% of the country’s electricity. Over 50% of Connecticut is powered by nuclear energy, the third highest in the country (to see the other states, click here). Worldwide, 14% of all electricity is nuclear.
So, if originally this form of power was considered to be good for the environment and cost-efficient, why are there so many people who think otherwise?
One reason is that nuclear power is not as cost-efficient as originally expected. The cost of building the power plants and storing the waste materials is much higher than the originators had anticipated.
But the main reason is the radioactive remnants inherent in creating this source of fuel. The waste products produced by nuclear power are radioactive for thousands of years and the storage facilities for the waste products aren’t completely secure. Because of the unstable nature of securing the radioactive products, small amounts can leak into the environment on a regular basis. In addition, the long term storage isn’t secure indefinitely and the engineers haven’t figured out a permanent way to contain the waste products.
The radioactive products have been shown to have long term negative effects on health and the environment, as witnessed in Chernobyl in the Ukraine after the disaster at the power plant there in 1986 and here in Pennsylvania at Three Mile Island in 1979. Another thought about this week’s disaster is that the power plant in Japan is located on the Pacific Ocean making it easier for the radioactive materials to circulate into water and affect the animals, fish and sealife earth-wide.
The waste products can also be used as weapons, which is why there is such high security needed in the maintenance of a nuclear power plant. If a plant is targeted, the repercussions would be enormous, both in loss of life and in the effect to the earth.
It should be noted that there are natural sources of radiation from the earth and cosmic radiation. Radioactivity is even naturally occurring in our bodies and in some of the foods we eat. Click here for a list of sources of radioactivity.
Overall, with the possibilities of solar, wind, thermal and biomass energy, the inherent risk to the earth long term is not worth the benefits, at least usually to those who want to protect the environment and human health. Focusing on ways to contain the radioactive waste materials and to prevent further disasters should be the goal of the nuclear power industry.
As Dr. David Krieger of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation has said, “Nature’s power is far beyond our ability to control...The nuclear power plant failures in Japan are a final wake-up call to replace nuclear power with safe, sustainable and renewable forms of energy.”
Image courtesy of alternate-energy-sources.com.