The fear of Fukushima: Should we be worried about radiation from nuclear power generation?

by Nicholas Thomson on February 19, 2014

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This blog was posted by Nicholas Thomson. I was unsure of what to research at first but found myself in the radiation section of the textbook. When I was talking about this task with a friend we began discussing the Fukushima disaster. This got me thinking should we be worried about nuclear energy. We hear all this news about how the US does not want Iran or North Korea to have nuclear weapons so we automatically assume that nuclear power is therefore dangerous. So I wanted to find out and write about the actual dangers of nuclear energy and how afraid we should be.

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In 2011 a catastrophic earthquake and tsunami struck the east coast of Japan causing damage to the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. The damage from the disaster caused what is known as a “core meltdown” which can be truly devastating to the surrounding environment. In a core meltdown, the cooling agent that prevents the over-heating of the reactor core is compromised causing the fuel rods to melt and radioactive isotopes to be released. This release of radioactive isotopes causes extremely high dose of radiation to be expelled into the environment. Exposure to a large amount of radiation in a small period of time is known as acute exposure. Acute exposure can cause burns and radiation sickness, which may lead to death within six months. Therefore, after the damage to the nuclear plant, the surrounding area was cleared of life until the government deemed the area safe to live again. Similar to the Chernobyl disaster in Ukraine, the effects of the radiation may not be immediately known. So should we be worried about radiation from nuclear power generation?

Yes

The current global issues surrounding greenhouse gases are forcing many countries to look to methods like nuclear power generation as an alternative form of energy. If nuclear power is chosen as an alternative energy source, many nuclear facilities could be created within close proximity to human life. Nuclear power generators contain volatile, species compromising elements that are easily dispersed into the environment and are a risk to public health. Once dispersed into the environment, an increase in radiation has unknown effects and can be a problem for a prolonged period. This could be concerning for many people.  A study conducted in Germany showed that children under 5, who lived near a nuclear power plant (5km zone), were at a greater risk of developing cancer. This study implies that we should be worried about the potential radiation when living close to power plants.

Furthermore, on a larger scale, people could be concerned about the effect of catastrophic exposure when an accident occurs. The Fukushima Power Plant accident in Japan caused an evacuation at a 30km radius from the disaster. This shows the concern for public health when an nuclear accident Officials-in-protective-g-007exposes people to large amounts of radiation. Furthermore, people are concerned because power plants are at the peril of human error. The effects from human error could be devastating to the safety of those surrounding the nuclear power plant.

How the waste of nuclear energy is deposited is also a concern for many people. The build up of nuclear waste which is often stored underground could spread radiation into water supplies, soil and food supply, if not managed correctly. According to the World Nuclear Organization (2013) “nuclear power generation facilities worldwide produce about 200,000 m3 of low- and intermediate-level radioactive waste, and about 10,000 m3 of high-level waste”. This begs the question that where do we put the waste once the storage is full? Clearly there are many potential dangers of nuclear power generation that people could be concerned about.

No

However, I believe these projected concerns are an overreaction to unfortunate accidents that have occurred with nuclear power plants. There has been very little proven danger that living next to a correctly functioning nuclear power generator is harmful to public health. In fact, Srinivasan (2013). states, “Nuclear risk analysis is thus reduced to identifying and determining the probability of those chains of events that cause serious fuel heating”. So only the catastrophic meltdown of nuclear power plants cause a risk to public health, not simply living near a nuclear power facility. Furthermore, according to one article in the Wall Street Journal, there has been no clear evidence for any rise in cancers or birth defects in those exposed to small amounts of radiation.

The increased safety precautions taken by nuclear power plants should reduce the fear of catastrophic radiation exposure. The Nuclear Energy Institute (2013) states how the nuclear industry is continually working on ways to maintain the safety of the plants and learn from the past events like Fukushima. Enforcements such as, 4 foot barriers of concrete and steel that surround reactors vastly reduces the risk of exposure in a catastrophic event. Furthermore another article states that nuclear power plants have 7 barriers from the fission products to the environment. Even if an accident is caused by human error or a natural disaster, the protective barriers in place minimize the chance of radiation exposure to the surrounding environment.  Learning from past disasters and studying new methods to prevent these disasters is ongoing according to the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI). The ill managed Fukushima Power plant was not safe as technical and institutional lapses exacerbated the nuclear disaster. Therefore, regulating power plants correctly and preventing ill management of nuclear plants will be important to prevent any further disasters. Furthermore, the location that power plants are built should be considered to minimalize the risk of natural disasters causing serious problems.

A concern that many people have about nuclear power plants is that they may blow up like a nuclear bomb. But as concerning as this may seem, a nuclear power plant cannot blow up.  This is because the reactor is different between a bomb and nuclear power generator. The nuclear fission in a power plant is controlled and is monitored closely, whereas in a nuclear bomb the fission is uncontrollable. In a nuclear power generator the uranium is enriched 4-5%, whereas in a bomb the uranium is enriched 90%. These huge differences in core reactors show that a power plant cannot blow up like a bomb. The worst that can happen is a leak of radiation into the environment, similar to what happened in Fukushima. But even this should no longer be a concern as a radiation leak can now be controlled and prevented more substantially.

In my opinion, we should not be worried about the effects of radiation from nuclear power generators. We should trust that the correct management and  safety mechanisms are followed in US nuclear power plants. Despite some contrary studies, there is overwhelming evidence that exposure to radiation by power plants is minimal, even from nuclear waste. Furthermore, the fear of catastrophic nuclear disasters should be reduced by the developments in the safety of power plants and the knowledge that nuclear plants cannot blow up. Ultimately, we are all exposed to radiation in our natural environments and nuclear power generators contribute only a small increase in total exposure. We should not let our fears of large-scale radiation exposure destroy a possible method to save our planet.

 

 

References

Nadakavukaren, A. (2011).   Our Global Environment: A Health

Perspective.  Seventh  Edition.   Waveland Press, Inc: Prospect Heights, Illinois.

Fukushima and thereafter: Reassessment of risks of nuclear power

http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10000872396390443995604578001973671148176

http://www.nei.org/CorporateSite/media/filefolder/Backgrounders/Fact-Sheets/Quick-Facts-Aug-2013.pdf?ext=.pdf

http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/Nuclear-Fuel-Cycle/Nuclear-Wastes/Radioactive-Waste-Management/

http://www.personal.psu.edu/jdd5053/blogs/the_den/nuclear%20fission.pdf

Reference for Images

http://iacknowledge.net/unfolding-fukushima-nuclear-disaster-worse-than-chernobyl-meet-the-victims

http://www.theguardian.com/business/2011/mar/20/tepco-japan-nuclear-disaster-bp

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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