The following text is an excerpt from the introduction and conclusion to The Viability of Nuclear Power in the United States and Abroad, Ryan Petschek’s Capstone paper. The Capstone Project is a compulsory, in-depth research project that allows every 8th-grade student to explore, write about and present on his/her passion. In much the same way that we have featured a series of Global Thesis Updates from our 12th-grade researchers, over the next couple of weeks our hope is to highlight some of the insightful, globally oriented work that is coming out of the Capstone program.
The recent accident at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear complex in Japan has brought questions of nuclear power’s safety, viability, and place in the future back into the public eye. However, the accident at Fukushima is one of only three large and well-known accidents in the history of one the safest power technologies, joining the Chernobyl, and Three Mile Island accidents. Nuclear power is cheap, plentiful and doesn’t release any carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gases. If the United States and the rest of the world are serious about creating a greener planet, nuclear power must be the one of the largest contributors to the global power supply because of its ability to provide an abundance of clean, cheap, and plentiful power.
The world entering what some people call a “green” revolution, and the world needs a clean, efficient, and cheap energy source that is already in widespread use in order to reduce fossil fuel consumption and reduce carbon dioxide emissions amongst other things. There are other green energy technologies such as solar power and hydroelectric power but these are actually more expensive, less reliable, and have a larger negative impact on the environment than nuclear power. For example, when large hydroelectric dams are built, thousands of people are displaced, entire ecosystems are submerged, and decaying plant matter releases methane—one of the most heat-trapping of the greenhouse gases. Nuclear power plants, in contrast, release absolutely no greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and therefore have a net positive outcome on global warming. Also, despite their use of radioactive materials in the production of electricity, they release almost no radiation into the surrounding environment. Actually, coal-fired power plants release more radiation into the atmosphere than nuclear plants: 0.03 millirem per year of coal plants compared to the 0.009 millirem per year of nuclear plants. It is important to note that both of these radiation sources pale in comparison to the 80% (288 millirem) of an average human’s radiation dose per year from natural sources and the 11% (40 millirem) a year that comes from medical x-rays. The entire process from atom to electricity does create waste, but most of this waste (800 tons per year) is short-lived low-level waste, which is easy to dispose of properly and loses 80% of its radioactivity within a year. Spent fuel can be safely stored for up to 100 years onsite at reactor locations without causing health effects. The total global volume of spent fuel is 12,000 tons which is tiny in comparison to the billions of tons of carbon dioxide that fossil fuel burning plants produce.
Nuclear power is often shown as an easy way for terrorists to easily create bombs and create widespread disasters that could turn parts of the world into nuclear wastelands. Anti-nuclear groups point out that if a nuclear reactor were targeted by a terrorist attack, it could kill or endanger millions of people. However, this is factually incorrect. For example, a 9/11 style event would do very little to the reactor and would not cause a Doomsday scenario because of the containment structure’s 3 1/2 to 4 1/2 feet thick steel reinforced concrete and ½ inch steel liner on the inside. In fact, a test has been done propelling an F-4 Phantom fighter jet into a similar concrete wall at 480 mph. The aircraft did not penetrate the structure. Terrorist’s would have a much harder time attacking a nuclear plant than many think. The containment structure and large, well-armed security forces deployed at U.S. plants would stop attacks without any serious damage to the reactor. Terrorists are often credited with being able to create atomic weapons and dirty bombs with reactor fuel that could be smuggled out of the plant. However, the type of uranium used in the commercial production of nuclear energy is uranium oxide. This nuclear fuel is made up of mostly uranium-238 with only about 4% being uranium-235, the kind needed to make nuclear weapons. In order for an explosive reaction to occur, the mixture would need to be almost 100% uranium-235. This would require massive amounts of stolen fuel, and a large, expensive, and time consuming process of enrichment—probably too complex for non-states to accomplish. The other use for stolen reactor fuel would be in a “dirty bomb”, a conventional explosive device with radioactive material dispersed by the explosion. According to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) “Most RDDs would not release enough radiation to kill people or cause severe illness – the conventional explosive itself would be more harmful to individuals than the radioactive material. However, depending on the situation, an RDD explosion could create fear and panic, contaminate property, and require potentially costly cleanup. Making prompt, accurate information available to the public may prevent the panic sought by terrorists…[A] dirty bomb’s radiation could be dispersed within a few blocks or miles of the explosion. A dirty bomb is not a ‘Weapon of Mass Destruction’ but a ‘Weapon of Mass Disruption,’ where contamination and anxiety are the terrorists’ major objectives.” As one can see, the creation of a nuclear device that can truly paralyze the United States or other places in the world is not within the reach of today’s terrorists.
Nuclear energy’s past has been tainted by the accidents that have occurred, but it has evolved to the point where it can become the predominant energy source on Earth. If the general public can be better informed on nuclear energy’s solution to major problems like global warming, nuclear energy with its abundance of cheap, clean, and plentiful energy is the clear energy choice for the future.