In per week to meet the basic power needs

In
the early morning of March 27, 1979, in Dauphin County, Pennsylvania, the face
of nuclear power in the United States was forever changed. The Three Mile
Island nuclear power plant suffered a malfunction which eventually caused a
significant part of the plant’s core to melt
down and immediately caused the plant to be shut down. Pregnant women
and many young children were evacuated from the surrounding area because of the
risk of excessive radiation from the malfunctioning power plant.  After the plant initially malfunctioned, it
took until April 27 (32 days) for the plant to be completely shut down.
Fortunately, little actual damage was done outside the power plant. Tsoukalas
and Gao (2014) stated that later research found the actual amount of radiation
released by the Three Mile Island incident was trivial, and an eighteen-year
observation study saw no noticeable ill-effects upon the surrounding population
(p.178). Nevertheless, the fear and uncertainty that the meltdown had created
still weighed heavily upon the public mind. Christy (1981) wrote, “The Three
Mile Island accident suggests that even an accident which apparently caused
almost no measurable physical harm still caused a tremendous psychological
upset” (p. 21).

            Even though there have been have been several major nuclear accidents over the years including Chernobyl
(1986), Fukushima (2011), Three Mile Island (1979), and several others, nuclear
power is getting continually safer and is generally seen in professional
circles as being safe for both humans and the environment. Harrison, Hester, and
Walls (2011) stated that after the Three Mile Island failure, nuclear power
plants have been built with many levels of sophisticated security features
that, in the event of failure, will cause an automatic
shutdown of the plant (p. 26). In countries around the world, nuclear
power is being quickly accepted as a main
means of electricity production, and it does have many benefits. Tsoukalas and
Gao (2014) stated, “Nuclear power meets the necessary requirements that
base-load power,” which is the minimum amount of electricity needed per week to
meet the basic power needs of a given area, “be safe, economically viable, and
reliable” (p. 174). Currently, the issues raising questions about the safety of
nuclear power center more on the by-products of power plant operation than on
the power plants themselves.

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            Nuclear power is the process of utilizing nuclear fission
inside of a nuclear reactor to produce electricity. Nuclear fission occurs when
a fissionable molecule (usually of uranium 235 or plutonium 239) splits into
two parts, releasing energy in the form of heat. After a somewhat lengthy
process, some kind of liquid is turned into a gas (usually water into steam) and that gas is funneled through a
turbine which turns and produces electricity. Nuclear fuel is the material used
in nuclear fission. According to nei.org (2017), “One nuclear fuel pellet which
is about as large as a thimble provides as much fuel as about one ton of
coal”; one ton of coal produces about 2,000 kilowatt hours of electricity
(about how much some single-family homes use during an entire month), so
nuclear fuel can be seen as quite efficient. Efficiency, in this case, refers
to how much electricity can be gained out of a certain amount of some
substance. Finally, nuclear waste is what is left over after the fissionable
molecules in the nuclear fuel have been used up. It is highly radioactive and
requires painstaking procedures for safe disposal.

            Because of accidents like Three Mile Island, nuclear
power is often viewed skeptically by the public. Feiveson (2009), a
self-declared skeptic of nuclear power, stated that along with concerns about
the safety of the disposal of nuclear waste from nuclear power plants, the
public is afraid of a potential disaster either from a malfunction of the plant
itself or from a malicious strike on a power plant by a terrorist organization
(p. 65). According to one survey (“Global Nuclear,” 2005) which was conducted
in eighteen countries including the United States, 54% of the people surveyed
said they thought the risk of nuclear terrorism was high. Although there has
never been a noteworthy terrorist attack on a nuclear power plant, the
possibility is certainly something to consider when evaluating whether nuclear
power is safe. Again, from the same survey (“Global Nuclear,” 2005), 62% of
those surveyed believed “that existing nuclear reactors should continue to be
used,” but 59% did not think that more nuclear power plants should be built. Thus,
nuclear power has significant opposition. However, it is interesting to note
that nuclear power is mainly opposed by the public sector while most
individuals in the professional sectors of science and engineering who are at
least somewhat educated on nuclear power are either tolerant of or advocates of
nuclear power. Because of that, it is possible that nuclear power is met with
public skepticism because of a lack of knowledge about nuclear power more than
from actual objections to the technology. This wide support from professional
circles indicates that if the public were better educated on the positive
aspects and the actual extent of risks from nuclear power, they would be more
likely to consider it a viable option for a source of much-needed electricity. Nuclear
power plants should be considered a safe alternative to other types of power
plants and should be more widely implemented in the United States because they
are cleaner and safer than many of the power plants currently in use.

Despite
what opponents of nuclear power fear, the most immediately harmful part of the
process of producing electricity with nuclear power is the radiation released
as a by-product of nuclear fission. Though this radiation certainly has the
potential to be deadly, all but a trivial amount is contained inside the nuclear
reactor by thick concrete walls and large amounts of water. The small amount of
radiation that escapes is not a measurable threat to human health. Christy
(1981) wrote, “The industry of nuclear power production has many stages and
each of these various stages produces exposures to nuclear radiations. These
can be designed to be quite small, and indeed they are so designed” (p. 10).
Some people may be afraid that exposure to any amount of radiation, no matter
how small, may cause cancer or some other disease. However, this is not the
case. Everything on earth is continually subjected to something called
“background radiation” which has multiple causes. Christy (1981) mentioned the
following: potassium 40 in both the oceans and earth’s crust, thorium and
uranium in the earth’s crust, and radon in the atmosphere (pp. 14-15). Adding
very small amounts of radiation to the existing amounts of background radiation
is unlikely to cause harm to the populations living near nuclear power plants,
and indeed, it has never been clearly observed to have negative effects.
Tsoukalas & Gao (2014) noted that inhabitants of areas near nuclear power
plants undergo “radiation doses of typically less than 0.1 mSv per annum,” (mSv
stands for millisievert, a measure of radiation). That small amount of
radiation is added to the “2.4 mSv dose” of background radiation, the radiation
continually present on earth, and “is not
considered a sizable increase” (p. 186). Overall, the radiation from nuclear
power plants is well contained and has not been observed to cause health issues
in those who are exposed to the exceedingly small amounts of radiation that
escape a normally functioning nuclear power plant.

            Although the process of producing electricity through
nuclear power only emits small amounts of radiation immediately, the nuclear
waste, a by-product of the nuclear power plants, is potentially more dangerous
than the minimal amounts of radiation produced during normal operating
processes. Nuclear waste is highly radioactive and would almost assuredly harm
biological life if proper containment and disposal methods were not followed.
Fortunately, there are a few ways that nuclear waste can be contained so that
it is not a threat. Tsoukalas & Gao (2014) described two of the most common
methods of disposal. The first method, direct disposal, which is currently the
only legal form of nuclear waste disposal in the United States, involves
placing the nuclear waste in radiation safe containers and storing those
containers somewhere where they can remain undisturbed for one thousand years
or more. The second method of nuclear waste disposal, nuclear recycling, is
currently being practiced in the UK. Nuclear recycling involves taking the
nuclear waste, removing unrecoverable parts, and storing them safely through direct
disposal. After the unrecoverable parts are removed from the waste, the parts
of the waste that have not been used up in nuclear fission are taken and used
to make more nuclear fuel for the nuclear power plants (p. 170). A third method of disposal was detailed by
Harrison, Hester, & Walls (2011): “Geological disposal involves the
emplacement and isolation of HAWs High Active Wastes, nuclear wastes in other
words in an underground repository (a GDF), housed deep inside a suitable rock
formation” (p. 132). Harrison, Hester, & Walls (2011) further explained
geological disposal by saying that within the aforementioned “rock formation”,
a permanent, radiation-proofed containment facility is constructed, which,
along with the rock in which it is placed, contains all radiation from the
waste so that natural resources are not contaminated. (p. 32) In this method,
there is no easy way to retrieve these nuclear wastes. They are buried for
good. Direct disposal, nuclear recycling, and geological disposal are the three
most common and useful methods of handling nuclear waste, and all of them leave
very little chance of the waste ever harming biological life.

            At this point, it may seem like nuclear power is just a
slightly more dangerous method of producing electricity than a more commonly
used method like coal-burning. However, environmental impact and efficiency are
the areas where nuclear power shines the brightest. Feiveson (2009), a
self-titled skeptic of nuclear power, wrote, “Compared to coal-generated electricity in particular, it nuclear power is relatively
clean, producing almost no emissions” (p. 60). Because turning water into steam
is the main method of producing electricity with nuclear power, it is apparent
why nuclear power plants do not release very many toxins into the environment. Harrison,
Hester, & Walls (2011) stated that during the normal functioning of a
nuclear power plant, no greenhouse gases are released (p. 16). The lack of
carbon emissions is especially attractive to many who are concerned with climate
change. While exploring types of energy production that would help control
carbon emissions and ultimately climate change, Weinberg (1980) stated that as
a “long-term option” for cleaner energy, nuclear power should be kept in mind (p.
401). However, even though greenhouse gas/carbon emissions are not produced
during the normal operation of a nuclear power plant, emissions are produced
during the processes of mining and processing uranium, disposing of the
annually produced “20 metric tons of used nuclear fuel” (nei.org, 2017), and
constructing the power plants themselves. That being said, if that view is
taken, even the cleanest forms of “clean” or “renewable” energy such as solar
power, wind power, and hydroelectric power cause emissions to be produced at
some point during their lifespan,
especially when they need repair, cleaning, renovation, or other necessary
maintenance procedures. Moniz (2011) thought that nuclear power is not the
perfect answer to the greenhouse gas/carbon emission issue, but he did believe
that it was a practical step in the right direction. (para. 29). With that in
mind, nuclear power plants during their normal functioning are similar in
environmental impact to forms of energy that are considered very clean and
safe.

 

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