Fear of a nuclear catastrophe has always been a subjective and emotional argument against developing energy from the atom. While the apocalyptic scenarios that involve radiation released in large quantities usually feature nuclear weapons, this fear is equally felt about nuclear energy.
It is natural to be afraid in the aftermath of the tragic events in Japan that have reminded us how weak we are against the forces of nature. One of the countries that was probably best prepared for such a large-scale disaster has been forced to race against time to prevent the release of radiation. And yet, this massive accident could have been avoided had the reactors been updated to make up for the outdated pressure suppression system, which presented 90 per cent probability of bursting in the event of overheating.
The safety of nuclear reactors should not be judged by this sole accident. Overall, the safety procedures that are in place are extensive and are guarded by a large number of highly trained nuclear engineers with the use of advanced electronic detectors. The amount of radiation emitted is continuously monitored inside and around the plant, and it amounts to a mere 0.01 millisievert (mSv) per year – a neglible level of radiation. It is irrational to be fearful of this magnitude, when radiation is in fact all around us, created by everday occurrences such as airline travel, X-rays and smoking. And it makes no sense to single out nuclear energy as a source of potential natural catastrophe when other technologies like offshore oil drilling present a much higher potential risk to the environment as was witnessed last year.
It is paradoxical that the environmentalists are the ones who oppose nuclear energy, when this same technology is our best chance to reverse climate change. On average, uranium produces 25,000 times more energy than coal with the same amount of material. Furthermore, the current rates of nuclear energy development will offset 0.8 to 1.8 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. In order to reverse climate change, alternative energies like wind and solar need to be used, but only by combining them with nuclear can we realistically reach a carbon free future.
Nuclear technology is constantly improving, with newer generation reactors able to reprocess the waste materials (although none are operating in the US) and using passive feedback systems. Also, the new breed of reactors are much safer and more economical – they produce less waste and have a higher life cycle. The slow rate at which newer generations of reactors are being built is a result of the difficult political consensus over nuclear energy.
The main drawback of nuclear energy is that since it’s produced in thermal reactors like coal and gas, it needs an extensive amount of water from nearby rivers to cool off the very hot rods in the reactor. This poses an additional design constraint for reactors that are not situated near oceans and that could significantly alter the temperature of nearby lakes or rivers. During the heat wave in Europe a few years ago the temperature of the water in the cooling lakes raised dramatically, thereby endangering fish and wildlife.
Despite all the safety measures, and the low risk probability, nuclear energy will always have a large amount of potential destruction, if unleashed by an unprecedented climate disaster or a terrorist attack. But still, the world is full of technologies that have potential risks and have contributed to deadly accidents – from hydro dams to mine explosions and structural collapses. No risk-free technology exists, and certainly continuing the unscientific stigmatization of nuclear energy does not help. We need not to fear nuclear itself, but the consequences of not acting now to fight climate change.
Only through nuclear energy can we realistically decrease greenhouse gases while driving forward the development of alternative green energies.
Alexander Kunev is a U3 Mechanical Engineering student. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.