A note on nuclear energy and safety

This is an opinion column written by a Sustain Mizzou member which became part of a discussion during our latest Environmental Reading and Media Group.  Read to the end for a list of other articles we discussed.

The recent disaster in Japan highlights the importance of building safety codes, disaster preparedness drills for areas prone to calamities, and a quick response from the authorities to prevent people from freaking out and shooting their neighbors or looting stores. On these fronts, the Japanese have handled the disaster exceptionally well. Aside from people in Tokyo hoarding essentials as soon as news of the disaster hit, everything remains mostly orderly and under control. The kind of power contained in a magnitude 9 earthquake is hard to fathom. Every additional number increases the intensity of the quake logarithmically– meaning a 2 earthquake on the Richter scale is 10 times as strong as a 1. You can do the multiplication for how strong a 9 would be.

Callaway Plant
The Callaway nuclear plant in Fulton, Missouri.

However, the media is not focusing on the important story: that of a nation hit by a one two punch of nature’s most ferocious disasters and attempting to pull through. Instead, they’d rather wave the glowing, radioactive shirt of the Fukushima nuclear power plant to show how inherently dangerous nuclear power is. Around the world, publications as diverse as Der Spiegel in Germany and the New York Times here have called into question the safety of existent nuclear power facilities. It’s almost absurd, actually, how some Germans are going bonkers over the remote possibility that a 9.0 earthquake and following tsunami might cause some of their plants to blow up.

Fukushima is no Chernobyl. It was designed by General Electric in the 70s and is light years ahead in safety features. Chernobyl’s design dates back to Soviet-era ‘damn the torpedoes’ style engineering where the only thing that mattered was getting it done fast and cheap. General Electric designed the Light Water Reactors (LWRs) to minimize potential radioactive spills in case of failure. Because water is used both as an essential part of the nuclear reaction and as coolant, a sudden failure in cooling would result in a less catastrophic accident since it would also arrest the reaction as well. Compare this to Chernobyl’s half assed design, where pulling coolant would just result in the reactor blowing its stack.

You have to keep in mind too that the current radioactive crisis is not the intrinsic fault of nuclear power but the fact that overconfident engineers put the backup generators for the cooling system below sea level, believing that a nearby sea wall could protect it from flooding. While the actual plant survived pretty much intact, those generators got washed away which started the whole catastrophe. The radiation leak as of this writing is growing, but according to the New York Times the leak is still being measured in millisieverts, with the largest escape being 400 mSv Wednesday. Compared to Chernobyl, where several Sieverts were released after the explosion, it’s nothing. The heroic 50 engineers left working to hold down the fort are expected to get no more than 250 mSv of exposure this year. It takes more than 250 mSv of radiation per day to induce radiation sickness. Around 10 Sieverts is enough to kill a person dead instantly, and anywhere from 2-10 can cause severe radiation sickness.

Nuclear power isn’t the magic bullet for our energy troubles, but it is a hell lot more sustainable than burning fossil fuels. Disposing of nuclear waste is a big issue, but can be done with money and effort (both things this nation, coincidentally, lack). While people freak about this current crisis, they need to remember that coal-fired power plants put more radiation in the atmosphere than this event would. Don’t let Fukushima fool you; nuclear power is still pretty safe.

Other resources on nuclear energy:

The Reading and Media Group meets on Thursdays at 6 p.m. in the MU Student Center, although this Thursday, it convenes at the Aldo Leopold documentary in Conservation Auditorium at 7 p.m. Check the Sustain Mizzou calendar for details.

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2 thoughts on “A note on nuclear energy and safety”

  1. The author of this post ignores the fact that radioactive waste cannot be disposed of safely without affecting the rest of the environment adversely. The issue ought not to be whether nuclear power is “safe” for people but whether it reduces the total human footprint on Mother Earth. The Fukushima catastrophe is further proof of the hazards of prioritizing human interests above that of the Earth’s. Please go to greenpeace.org and educate yourselves. *sigh*

  2. Very good article. This is the correct, objective perspective on the situation at Fukushima. Another thing to consider is that Fukushima was built in the 70s, as you mentioned, and the disaster at Three Mile Island happened in ’79, after which safety in nuclear energy drastically improved. As safe as Fukushima is compared Chernobyl, nuclear reactors built today are even safer. Also, let’s put the topic of nuclear energy in perspective, something the first commenter is failing to do. Coal power production kills 4000 times as many people as nuclear power (this stat varies depending on the the calculation, but it is clear fossil fuels have a MUCH higher cost than nuclear power). There are better sources of energy than nuclear energy, that is clear, but other than waste disposal and its high cost, it has virtually no downsides, compared to those of fossil fuels, which have a much higher human cost and environmental cost. Nuclear power does reduce our ecological footprint. Compared to fossil fuel extraction and burning, disposal of nuclear waste is practically a nonissue.

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