Throughout the world, energy sources are being depleted, and the search for new
ways of creating power is intensifying. Nuclear power has been introduced, but has been
met mostly with fear in the United States. “The introduction of new technology has
always created fear and apprehension among users and observers. Electricity and natural
gas caused similar apprehension, as did the train, the automobile, and the airplane”(R.
Deutch). With these other technologies, people were willing to overcome their fears and
accept the risks as they realized that the advantages outweighed the disadvantages. The
benefits of nuclear power have yet to be understood, and the general population has yet to
accept it. Every power source has its risks, and the resources for the current methods are
quickly disappearing. There is an ample supply of the fuel needed for nuclear power, and
it is become increasingly important that people understand its benefits. The United
States has decided not to use nuclear power as a main power source, without getting a
full understanding of it. Once people learn how nuclear power works, what the benefits
are, and what the risks are, they will be more able to make an educated choice about
whether or not to use it.
The way a nuclear reactor works remains a mystery to the average person.
Nuclear power, like coal power, creates heat, which boils water, creating steam that turns
a turbine, which turns a generator, and produces electricity. To create the heat with coal
power, the coal is burned. In nuclear power, the heat is created with a thermal fission
reaction. Uranium 235 nuclei are placed in the reactor. The temperature is kept around
550F. Thermal neutrons, moving at a velocity of about 3700 meters per second are sent
into the reactor. When these neutrons strike the uranium, the uranium nucleus will most
likely split into 2 fragments, called fission fragments. These fragments are usually large
positively charged particles of elements like strontium or iodine. The splitting of the
uranium nucleus is where most of the heat is generated. If the atom does not split, it will
absorb the neutron, creating plutonium. When the uranium splits, it also sends off two or
three neutrons at very high energy. The neutrons strike other uranium or plutonium
atoms, helping the reaction to continue in the fuel. If the reactions were allowed to
continue with out slowing down, the temperature of the fuel would quickly heat up
enough to melt the containers. A moderator is used to slow down the neutrons in the
fuel. Coolant, surrounding the fuel, collects the heat created in the reaction and also
helps to maintain an acceptable temperature in the fuel. The heat of the coolant is used
to boil the water, and produce electricity.
Nuclear energy has many environmental and economical benefits. While no
source of electrical power is completely safe, nuclear power has a remarkable record. In
the last forty years, not one fatality has occurred as a result of the operation of a civilian
nuclear power plant in the United States, Western Europe, Japan, or South Korea.
Compared to other power sources, no other method is as safe. Nuclear power produces
twenty percent of the power in the U.S., and produces 2000 tons of solid waste annually
in the United States. All this waste could be easily disposed of with the creation of a
high-level waste repository in the United States. The coal industry, on the other hand,
produces 100,000,000 tons of ash and sludge, laced with mercury and nitric oxide,
annually. Oil spills have been a huge source of environmental problems, and there is no
risk of this with nuclear power. Nuclear power is also much more economically sound.
Production of nuclear power currently costs half of what is costs to produce power from
fossil fuels. The cost could be even lower if nuclear power plants didn’t have to deal with
lawsuits, court injuctions, and other delaying tactics used by people opposed to nuclear
power. Nuclear power is more reliable, more cost effective, safer, more environmentally
healthy, and more sustainable than any other method of producing power.
Of course, as with any new technology, nuclear power does have disadvantages.
Accidents can happen, with disastrous effects. The area around the famous Chernobyl
will remain radioactive and unhabitable for thousands of years. People living in nearby
areas have been greatly effected, and it expected that the effects will continue to be seen
for generations to come. The meltdown at the plant in Chernobyl was due to poor
planning of the reactor. The moderator rods where too big to be held in the containment
unit, and radiation was allowed to escape. The control board of the reactor was also
poorly designed, and the workers did not realize that there was a problem until it was too
late. No matter what the cause, the effects of the meltdown are undeniably horrific. But
the likelihood and risks of these meltdowns have been greatly overstated. In 1979, an
event occurred at the Three Mile Island Unit 2 power plant that resulted in the first U.S
case of melted fuel in a full scale commercial nuclear power plant. The news media
reported this incident and made it appear as if a major catastrophe had occurred, while
there where no deaths, no injuries, and there is no suspected effect on future generations.
The largest risk of nuclear power is the possible effects of radiation from the waste
products. The wastes are highly radioactive at first, but the most radioactive isotopes
decay fairly quickly. About one cubic meter of waste is generated per year at a nuclear
power plant. This waste is highly radioactive and can cause serious heath risks if people
are exposed to it. After 10 years, the wastes are 1,000 times less radioactive, and after
500 years, the fission products are less radioactive then the original fuel they came from.
Another major risk is the danger of fuel being stolen from the power plants and being
used to make bombs.
Although it would be possible to make bombs from nuclear fuel,
the process would be highly difficult and very expensive. In all the years that nuclear
power has been used, the fuel has never been stolen. The dangers of nuclear energy are
very slight, but, as with any power source, they are present.
“If all you know about the automobile is that you can get killed by it, then you do
away with the automobile. Or, if all you have to know about the airplane is that is can
crash and kill you and that once you are on the plane there is nothing you can do to
protect yourself, you would not go up in the air. If all you had to know about food is that
you can get fat and have diabetes and heart attacks, you would, I suppose, do away with
food. This is a very strange way to look at any issue” (R. Dupont). The people of the
United States often hear only the negative aspects of nuclear power, and have therefore
decided not to use it. Fossil fuels are running out, and nuclear power is a viable
alternative. When people have learned all the benefits, they may decide that nuclear
power is a good solution to our problem of finding power.