nuclear power allows for no human errors

nuclear power allows for no human errors

As the crippled and severely damaged nuclear reactors at Fukushima, Japan appear in the news from time to time, I thought we would address the issue of nuclear power in an essay.

Why does this matter?  For 2 reasons.  First, the radiation released at Fukushima travels through the atmosphere and the ocean so that it is a health threat far beyond Japan. Secondly, today there are nuclear reactors in many industrial countries that pose similar risks to human health as such technology is not safe.  (Such health risks and threats include increased incidence of cancers, birth defects, contamination of the food we consume, possible genetic mutations, and for people living near to large radiation releases, acute radiation poisoning and death.)

There are websites that are more closely monitoring the developments at Fukushima.  The public, both in Japan and internationally, has not been told all the facts of the current situation.  The remaining risks of further large releases of radiation are quite real and serious.  These crippled reactors, in damaged buildings, are still located in an area that is prone to earthquakes.  To date, the cleanup and/or effective containment of the radioactive reactor cores, fuel rods, and radioactive water (used as coolant) has not been completed, nor even progressed very far.  Tokyo Electric Power still seems to be taking a wait and see attitude, and is not moving aggressively to prevent further releases of radiation.  From some reports, radioactive water from the nuclear complex is leaking into the sea each day.

Despite nuclear power industry assurances as to safety, nuclear power is inherently dangerous.  This is just the nature of the beast, so to speak.  The fission by-products that are various radioactive isotopes of Iodine, Cesium and Strontium decay and are damaging to life – human, animal, and plant.  Yet, because of the oil price shocks of the 1970s (1973-4, and 1979), a few countries built many nuclear power generation plants (France, Japan, and the US).

When dealing with such a dangerous activity (nuclear fission), there is no margin for human error.  Human error in the design of the plant at Fukushima may be partly (even largely) to blame for the disaster.  As well, human error occurs in the response to an emergency.  Even with extensive training of plant operators, safety drills, hours spent in simulators (of the plant’s control room), extensive safety procedures, and the presence of backup cooling systems with backup power sources to run them, we cannot guarantee that a person, or persons, during a crisis will respond correctly in the critical moments.  At Fukushima, it appears that Tokyo Electric Power personnel did not move quickly in the early hours of the crisis (March, 2011) to restore cooling to the various reactors (which stay hot because of decay heat even when fission has stopped).  We cannot eliminate the possibility of human error causing or contributing to a nuclear plant crisis or “accident”.  This is true at all the world’s nuclear facilities.

Nuclear plant accidents may so far have been infrequent, but when these occur, the effects can be very harmful to health and be very widespread.  Fallout from Fukushima did make it to North America by the prevailing winds in the northern hemisphere.  Air borne fallout from Chernobyl (1986) came down on eastern Europe and Scandinavia.  Also, troubling is the nuclear “waste” that is residing at the 100 or so nuclear reactors in the US.  Originally, this was to be transported to Yucca Mountain in Nevada for secure long-term underground storage, but this has not happened and does not appear likely to happen.  Thus, radioactive spent fuel is sitting in pools of water around the country and poses a risk of being released to the environment.

Taking a step back, and taking a broader perspective, we question the wisdom of producing electricity by splitting uranium atoms.  Fission produces heat that is used to boil water to make steam that then turns turbines (electromagnetic induction).  (The reactor cooling water is not what turns turbines, the process has other steps so that clean water is boiled.) Fossil fuels are much safer to burn to generate heat and boil water for electric energy production.

So-called man-made global warming has been debunked now.  (Only ecological and big government fanatics still cling to this idea.  Oh, and a misinformed public.)  While the world seeks to develop safe and economically viable alternative energy sources (which may be decades away), we ought to move away from nuclear power and use fossil fuels.  The US alone has a few centuries worth of electric power generation in its natural gas and coal reserves.  These can be used with appropriate pollution control technology that is here with us now.

A final thought on Fukushima.  At the time of its construction (in the 1970s), it was known that the eastern coast of Japan was much more seismically active than its western coast. Such nuclear facilities could have been built on the western coast of the country.  This might have necessitated constructing more miles of electric transmission lines to deliver the electricity, but that would have been a small price to pay for reducing the risks of a major plant accident.

Thanks for reading.

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