Physics

The Issues around Nuclear Power



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There is but one critical issue surrounding the operation of nuclear power plants. As Dr. Christian Szell asked Dustin Hoffman's character in the MARATHON MAN, "Is it safe?"

Is nuclear power safe for use in or near population centers? Does it pose a threat to people, the environment or our children? And what is to be done about the waste products?

There is a great deal of evidence for those who say "NO!" to point to. They lift up the specters of Chernobyl and Three Mile Island. They tout the Hollywood film, the CHINA SYNDROME as if it were an actual event instead of a weak sci fi drama.

The missing element from most of their arguments is the truth. There are thousands of reactors operating around the world, some for decades without the slightest incident.

Many of the Reportable Incidents are voluntary reports. Unlike any other industry, the nuclear power industry is strongly encouraged to self-monitor, to self report.

The operators of the plants are as profit conscious as any other business. But they know better than anyone else the negative impact of permitting minor mistakes to add up to a major mishap. One big "OOPS!" can shut down a plant for years if not forever.

France has over 45 percent of their domestic power from nuclear energy. They made the choice as a matter of national independence and to limit the impact of foreign fuel sources on national security.

Canada, Germany and Russia all have a number of safe operating reactors. The plant at Chernobyl was an experimental design that had great potential for efficiency but unacceptable risk.

The inventor warned his government that the plant shouldn't be built. When they ignored that warning, he advised it be built far from civilization. The Communist party instead wanted the plants built close to the West so Free Europe would take notice of this marvel of Soviet engineering.

I think they noticed.

That foreign operators, though. What is America's record in nuclear safety? The best kept secret in America is the long and impressive record American operators have maintained for decades.

Nuclear power was invented in the US. The idea has its roots in European physicists but it took the ingenuity and strength of the American economy to make it a reality. There are power plants in many states from New York to California.

The biggest shocker is the fact that the US Military operated a dozen nuclear reactors on the doorstep of Berkeley, the notorious heart of the anti-nuclear movement in America.

The US Navy has safely operated hundreds of reactors at sea since the late 50's. That covers operational safety, but what about the waste?

The commonly accepted clich is the waste is accumulating by the ton every year and that it will remain lethally radioactive for thousands of years.

The reality is there is far less nuclear waste than most people realize and most of it decays away in less than twenty years.

I taught nuclear power for almost that long. It would take a long time to layout the evidence supporting that statement - which is precisely the problem. The average American is completely ignorant of how nuclear power works.

Simply put, when something decays radioactively, it is gone; you don't have it any more. Say you start with 1 kilo of a radioactive material. In one half-life, half of it is gone, turned into something else.

After five half-lives the original material is essentially gone less than 3% and fading fast.

Sometimes that new item is radioactive as well, sometimes not. But all radioactive things eventually become inert.

The short answer to the original question is "Yes, nuclear power is safe."

The debate will never be over, however, as long as the general population lacks an understanding of the nature, operation and safety of nuclear power. Lack of knowledge is never a good thing.

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