10 December 2011
Nuclear Power: Success, Destruction, and the Future
I. INTRO to Nuclear Power, Sentiment and Formation
Ever since the infamous bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, people around the world have been awestruck by both the frightening power of nuclear technology and the amazing potential of that power. Over the years, nuclear technology has diffused throughout world, and many countries, including the United States, have used this knowledge to build/utilize nuclear driven power plants. However, while this technology has been praised for its potential for cheap energy and being relatively environmentally friendly, public concerns over the volatility of nuclear fuel and the potential hazards that accompany any procedural malfunction threaten the future of this revolutionary technology.
The advent of this nuclear technology began just before the start of the twentieth century. In 1896 Henri Becquerel discovered natural radioactivity in uranium, and then in 1898 Pierre and Marie Currie experimented with plutonium and radium. Both findings were revolutionary and deadly, but the applications of this radioactivity were not known until the late 1930s when the concept of nuclear fission was discovered. Nuclear fission is the process by which a decaying atom breaks into two smaller, separate atoms and releases neutrons along with the split. These neutrons can then bombard other unstable atoms and “using fission, to initiate a chain reaction to produce energy: the principle of the nuclear reactor was born.” (Ngô 225)
The key to a stable and fairly safe nuclear power reactor is the ability to control the rate of the nuclear reaction. The enriched uranium or plutonium needed inside the nuclear fuel core is by its very nature unstable. To become more stable, these elements must decay, releasing neutrons, radiation, and energy in the form of heat. This heat is then harnessed in most nuclear power reactors by using a water based coolant and steam. The trick to maintaining a stable reactor with a fairly constant energy output is to control the rate of reaction. To do this, metalloids like cadmium and boron are used in precise amounts to absorb some of the loose neutrons. By maintaining a steady stream of released neutrons, the reaction is held at a critical state. If neutrons are released at too high of a rate, then the reaction is considered supercritical, and this is when most meltdowns or partial meltdowns occur.
A meltdown or partial meltdown runs serious health risks to all those involved. Unlike coal plants, when something goes wrong at a nuclear plant, it is not just the heat and possible explosion that personnel and first responders have to worry about. The release of that radiation into the environment is a grave problem. As mentioned before, radiation is a natural by-product of nuclear power generation. When everything runs as planned, the radiation is contained within the core or within the closed circuit cooling liquid. However, when things go wrong, three different types of radiation, alpha, beta, and gamma, can be released into the environment. Gamma rays are easily the most dangerous. They are only stopped by ten centimeters of lead and can fully penetrate through human tissue. While alpha and beta rays cannot penetrate nearly this far, they can certainly still be very harmful if inhaled and exposed to the lungs. A further concern with any radioactive releases is cleanup. Thus far, the predominant method of recovery and getting rid of radiation is to let time take its course. All of these radioactive elements have different half-lives: as they split more, their radioactivity decreases. Unfortunately some take a much longer time than others. Still today, several areas around Chernobyl are not legally inhabitable.
Nevertheless, the potential of nuclear energy was far too much for American scientists or the...