Thursday, March 29, 2012

I was assigned a research project in English 101 and Geology 111. The Geology class gave me a topic: Con Nuclear Energy. I asked my professors in each class if I may use the same essay for both classes. They both agreed, whew! Since this is a Geology blog I have decided to include my essay for all to read and critique. 




Nuclear power
           Electricity provides me with lights and heat in my home. Where does all this power come from? Should I care about where the power comes from? In 2011 an earthquake off the coast of Japan caused a tsunami that destroyed a nuclear power plant. People around the world became very alarmed and scared, because they feared radiation from the destroyed nuclear power plant.  Nuclear power uses fission, the process of a nucleus of an atom splitting, to produce heat to generate power. Many people including Professor David McKay (Chief Scientific Adviser for Department of Energy and Climate Change) support nuclear power. Professor McKay says that nuclear is along with renewable power sources is the best way to go (Mackay, 2009). It’s cleaner than fossil fuels and has more power than renewables (Mackay, 2009). Everyone from miners of uranium to anyone within fifty miles of a plant is in danger of radiation sickness and various forms of cancer (if there is an accident). Besides possible contamination of millions of people, nuclear power kills hundreds of thousands of fish each year (NRC, 2011). Lastly there is no safe way to store the waste product of nuclear power. Nuclear power is not an option for the American people. We have a responsibility to ourselves and to our future generations to steer far from nuclear power.            
Nuclear power uses uranium fission to produce heat in turn that heat produces electricity for us. Roughly 20% of the U.S. depends on nuclear power (NRC.org, 2012). Those that support nuclear power claim that it’s clean (Moore, 2006). The uranium required for the nuclear industry is found within the Earth’s crust and must be mined. “Radiological exposure is of particular importance in uranium mining…workers at Ranger wear radiation dosimeters to measure the dose received due to external  irradiation” (Gulson, 2004). So miners in these mines are required to wear specific equipment to monitor how much radiation they are exposed to over time.  This in itself should raises safety issues. These men wear both a dosimeter on their hips that measures the external exposure and a dosimeter on their chest or shoulder which measures the radiation they may be inhaling. If nuclear power is so clean, then why must we take so many precautions just to get the uranium out of the ground?  From the mine, uranium is shipped to the power plants to be used.      
The power plants receive its clean uranium from the mine. How do they use it? They use the uranium in fission, which means the atom is split into multiple parts. The fission produces heat, is used to boil water to produce steam which in turn moves a turbine and generates electricity. Where do they get the water from? Nuclear power plants are located near a water source such as a river, stream, or ocean. Water is sucked into the plant, boiled to form steam used to move turbines, and then put back into the water source. Power plants have to put large metal nets to catch the fish and other objects from being pulled in, this is called impingement (NRC, 2011). In 1988 impingements killed 315,840 adult fish and 12,221,440 fish eggs. Then the water is put back into the water source.  The water is not irradiated. However, it’s put back in the water source at a much higher temp then the original water (Teixeira, 2009). This is a detrimental thing to our ecosystems. Animals and plants are sensitive to water temperature. The local ecosystem experiences diminished diversity of smaller life forms that in turn fish depend on because of the hot water (Teixeira, 2009). In Brazil, a study was done on the water discharge of a nuclear power plant into the ocean. This study recorded an increase of 8°C, (15 °F), caused by the plant (Teixeira, 2009). This change in temperature was shown to reduce the amount of species in the area. In addition to the thermal discharge, there is chlorine added to the water, which affects the marine life further. Another study on phytoplankton had the same results, showing a dual impact of thermal and chlorinated water to hurt the area around the power plant (Chuang, 2009).
            Now that the uranium has been mined and then forced to split, what happens to the products left over? Nuclear fuel under goes fission it splits into two different isotopes. These isotopes splitting are what cause the release of heat. After they have split they are considered waste, because they are no longer usable. Some of these isotopes have short half-lives, while others have extremely long half-lives. Radioactive waste cannot be destroyed. There are two levels of nuclear waste: low level waste and high level waste (Rosenfield, 2011). Low level waste has shorter half-lives and poses a threat due to the large amounts of it. High level waste has either longer half-lives or is more radioactive or both.
“High-level waste present a more severe exposure because they are usually high temperature, highly radioactive, and extremely long lived. High level waste is extremely dangerous to human and animal life, particularly if subjected to direct exposure…High level waste also represent an indirect exposure hazard from possibility of leaking into ground water in rivers where they could enter the food chain, and also from low levels of radiation that will irradiate the environmental media surrounding the storage site during normal operation.” (Rosenfield, 2011)
Many years ago the U.S. would take this waste, seal it in large drums and dump it into the ocean. There are roughly 89,000 containers in the ocean (Agency, 1980). This practice was stopped. Each power plant in the U.S. produces twenty metric tons a year (Rosenfield, 2011). There are over 136 nuclear reactors in the US, with over 100 of those producing power (NRC.org, 2012). I did some very quick math; with 100 plants in operation producing 20 tons of waste a year. That equals 2000 tons of waste a year. How are we storing this radioactive waste? The spent fuel rods are stored in giant pools of water; about 20 feet of water on top and surrounded in concrete to protect anyone from harm (NRC.org, 2012). There these fuel rods sit forever (or as long as these pools hold out.) During the disaster at Fukushima, Japan at least one of these types of pools exploded. Dr Arjun Makhimijani stated “The apparent occurrence of spent fuel accidents at Fukushima significantly undermines the NRC’s conclusion that high density pool storage of spent fuel poses a “very low risk” (Arjun, 2011). Dr Makhimijani continued on to say that the United States pools are packed more tightly than Japan’s posing a larger risk. As for the fuel itself, there is no safe place to store it. The power plants must store it at their sites above ground in giant concrete casks (NRC.org, 2012). For a number of years, high-level waste products were stored at Yucca Mountain in Nevada.  When this facility was closed, nuclear power plants were forced to store their spent fuel rods onsite. As of right now, there is no safe way to store spent nuclear fuel.
“At present a large quantity of high-level nuclear waste has already been released into the environment from nuclear power plant accidents (i.e. Chernobyl) and from willful dumping of said waste into the environment.” (Rosenfield, 2011)
 A very little known nuclear facility in Hanford, WA is the site of the most expensive and most contaminated site in all of the US. Just a quick rundown of the contamination:43 million cubic yards of radioactive waste, 130 million cubic yards of contaminated soil, 475 billion gallons of contaminated water slowly making its way to the Snake River, over 80 square miles of contaminated land, and over 200 radioisotopes released into the air. It costs the US taxpayers $1.8 billion a year and has been closed since 1989. Hanford was a site for the testing of nuclear weapons and had 8 reactors on site. Though they were not providing power to the public, it is an example of what happens to waste of nuclear reactors. Most of the contamination comes from storage tanks that store nuclear waste, and are prone to leakage (Rosenfield, 2011). Nuclear power, and its clean energy, has a very dirty past of terrible accidents. A nuclear power plant can lose control of the fission reaction. If the fission is not kept cool, it can heat up and a meltdown occurs. In nuclear history there have been no recorded total melt downs, but there have been several partial meltdowns. There have been 22 nuclear power plant accidents since 1952 (Sovacool, 2008). In 2011 in Japan a partial meltdown occurred. This meltdown was due to an earthquake that caused a tsunami. The reactor’s cooling water was compromised and the reactor began to meltdown. This meltdown released many harmful radioactive particles into the environment. The sea water, air, and ground were all affected. The Japanese government evacuated residents in a 50 mile perimeter around the plant and none of these residents have been able to return. In 1979, the Three Mile Island facility in Pennsylvania experienced a partial meltdown which cost taxpayers $2.4 billion. Fortunately, no one was killed. Now there is still a reactor there, buried under ground for the rest of time. Let’s not forget the most famous nuclear reactor meltdown of all, Chernobyl, Russia. In April 1986 a steam explosion results in a partial meltdown. 56 people died, over 300,000 people permanently evacuated their homes, 7000 people developed cancer, and the total cost was $6.7 billion (Sovacool, 2008). The effects of the meltdown in Russia are still being tallied to this day. The site has been abandoned and I doubt anyone will ever return. There is no safe way to fight a meltdown and or clean up. The brave people who fight and cleanup for us are the ones that are exposed to the radiation in the worst ways. Many of these men have been hospitalized and many have died due to the effects of radiation.
            There are hundreds of reasons that America should not invest in nuclear power. I have failed to mention that a nuclear power plant in just three months can be ready to produce weapons of mass destruction; we will never forget the bombing of Japan. It is not the power of the future. When supporters of this clean power tell us how clean and good it is for us, don’t listen. Nuclear power is not clean. From the mining pits to the reactors, to the waste sites, and possible meltdowns there is nothing clean about nuclear energy. We have great reason to be afraid and alarmed when our government announces a new nuclear power plant, in Georgia, which was announced on February 9, 2012 (Mufson, 2012). So the next times you go to flip on a switch or charge your laptop, remember that you could be supporting nuclear power.

Works Cited

NRC.org. (2012). Retrieved from http://www.NRC.gov: http://www.nrc.gov/reactors/operating.html
Agency, E. P. (1980). Factsheet on Ocean Dumping of Radioactive Waste Materials. Washington D.C.: Enviromental Protection Agency.
Arjun, M. (2011). Declaration of Dr. Arjun Makhijani. Takoma Park, MD: Institute for Energy and Enviromental Research.
Chuang, Y.-L. (2009). Effects of a Thermal Discharge from a Nuclear Power Plant on Phytoplankton and Periphyton. Journal of Sea Research, 197-205.
Gulson, B. L. (2004). The Effect of Exposure to Employees from Mining and Milling Operations in a Uranium Mine on Lead isotopes- a pilot study. Science Direct, 267-272.
Mackay, D. (2009, October 4). The future is green, the future is nuclear. Times online.
Moore, P. (2006, April 16). Going nuclear. A green makes the case. Washington Post.
Mufson, S. (2012, feb 9). NRC approves construction of new nuclear power reactors in Georgia. Washington Post.
NRC, U. (2011). Generic Environmental Impact Statement for License Renewel of Nuclear power Plants. Washington DC: US NRC.
Rosenfield, P. E. (2011). 10-Nuclear Waste and Tritium Releases. In P. E. Rosenfield, Risks of Hazardous Waste (pp. 115-126). Boston: William Andrew Publishing.
Sovacool, B. K. (2008). A Perliminary Assesment of Major Energy Accidents 1907-2007.
Teixeira, T. P. (2009). Effects of a Nuclear Power Plant Thermal Discharge on Habitat Complexity and Fish Community Structure in Iha Grande Bay, Brazil. Marine Enviromental Research, 188-195.

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