Earth Notes: Issues and perils of nuclear energy

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“Nuclear power is an unforgiving technology. It allows no room for error. Perfection must be achieved if accidents that affect the general public are to be prevented.”— Carl Hocevar, Scientist, Union of Concerned Scientists

By Peter Bollen

Guest Columnist

Nuclear power, or nuclear energy, is the use of exothermic nuclear processes to generate useful heat and electricity. Nuclear fission (power stations) provided about 5.7% of the world’s energy and 13% of the world’s electricity in 2012. Nuclear power plant reactors have been a controversial international debate since their inception in the early 1950s.

The controversy concerning the use of nuclear energy continues unabated since the slowdown of investment in reactors after the Three Mile Island accident in 1979. The proponents of nuclear energy, such as the World Nuclear Association, contend that nuclear energy is a safe, sustainable energy source that reduces carbon emissions. Opponents such as Greenpeace International claim that nuclear power poses many threats to people and the environment.

Nuclear power plant accidents include the Soviet Chernobyl disaster (1986), the recent Japanese Fukushima Daiiki disaster along with the aforementioned Three Mile Island incident in Pennsylvania to name the most serious reactor accidents. This doesn’t include some nuclear submarine mishaps over the years. Opponents will note that the costs of nuclear power accidents is high and meltdown can take decades to clean up. The human costs of evacuations of affected populations and lost livelihoods is also significant.

After the Three Mile Island incident, major protests erupted in every country that had a nuclear power program. Moreover, more than 63 nuclear units were canceled in the U.S.A. between 1975 and 1980. Not just the specter of nuclear accidents were part of these protests — investments in nuclear proliferation, the high costs of power plants, nuclear terrorism and the long-term storage of radioactive waste disposal — all became international concerns.

Personally, I had more than a passing interest in the 1980s when the Seabrook New Hampshire nuclear facility became active. A major concern besides safety was the problematic evacuation access in the event of an accident. Major protests from area citizens emerged warning the public of these dangers. At that time, I decided to hire a clipping service detailing any information around the country concerning nuclear power plant safety issues. The response was stunning. News services sent captions and newspaper headlines which filled my mailbox with headings such as: Nuclear-plant Errors Found Widespread; Four Hour Alert Called After Malfunction; Cancer Deaths Tied to Nuclear Plant (London); Storm Threatens Nuclear Salvage (Belgium), etc., etc. I had no idea as to the range of problems occurring regularly with the various leakages, temporary shutdowns and constant reactor errors across the country and in overseas facilities.

Over the years, similar problems were recurring causing more shutdowns and the usual reassurances by spokesmen in the industry that the public was not affected by these leakings, accidents and other problems, which caused further maintenance situations. The Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) has itself acknowledged that there have been a number of “near misses” early on in the brief operating history of commercial reactorsaccidents that could have resulted in major public health incidents.

Constant warnings were forthcoming from scientists and physicians. Dr. Helen Caldicott, an international anti-nuclear activist, asserts that, “Even the smallest dose (measured in millirems) can affect us, for the effects of radiation are additive. If we receive separate small amounts of radiation over time, the long-term biological effects (cancer, leukemia, genetic injury) may be similar to receiving a large dose all at once.”

The latest serious incident was the recent Fukushima Daiichi plant crippling (March 2011) where the Tokyo Electric Power Co. stated that about 80,000 gallons of contaminated water leaked from one of the tanks. The plant had multiple meltdowns after a quake and tsunami hit the area. Japan’s nuclear incident prompted a rethinking of nuclear safety and nuclear energy policy in many countries. Germany decided to close all its reactors by 2022, and Italy has banned nuclear power.

Former Japanese Prime Minister, Naoto Kan, who dealt with the Fukushima disaster, has stated that, “The way to ensure that an accident does not happen like this is not to have nuclear power plants… nobody knows when or where a nuclear accident (will occur) but definitely somewhere it will happen.”

These are haunting words of warning. Kan also said that it is ultimately up to the citizens to determine the fate of the power plants in their area.

Historically, when citizens’ protests reaches critical mass that is when cultural change is effected on a large scale. Changes in the nuclear industry have been incremental and the public debate continues — unabated.

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