In March 2011, one of the world’s most catastrophic accidents occurred, the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster. The earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan had disabled the power supply and cooling of three of the plant’s reactors, causing a meltdown of the three cores.
This incident was rated 7 on the INES scale, the highest on the scale. However, little. did people know how this incident will negatively change their view on nuclear energy since Chernobyl. Fukushima was a focusing event, a crisis that generates massive media and public attention and ripple effects well beyond the disaster itself. The meltdown directly affected the air, water, soil, people, and biota that were in the vicinity of the plant.
Nuclear energy is the use of exothermic nuclear processes to generate heat and electricity. It comes from splitting uranium atoms in a highly exothermic process called fission, resulting in two separate atoms and energy. This energy, in the form of heat, is used to boil water around the reactor, which carries excess heat away from the reactor to the steam generator. The generated steam turns a turbine, resulting in electricity production. Currently, nuclear energy accounts for 70% of all emission-free electricity generated.
With nuclear energy’s great potential, people are concerned. Ever since the Fukushima disaster, people are questioning the safety of nuclear energy. They fear that any technical issue might result in radiation leakage that would damage their health and the environment. On the other hand, other stakeholders are concerned with the rise of the economy, and nuclear energy is one way to help the economy recover.
With that being said, this has caused the world to question whether we should rely on nuclear energy and whether nuclear energy is the answer to our current energy crisis. Many want to shut down the reactors. Yet, what is the price of such decision? What are the economic implications? What are the environmental impacts? What are the health risks? The debate is still ongoing, and both have solid reasons. What is the solution?
The Economists’ Point of View
Usama Al-mulali has conducted a study that examined effect of nuclear energy consumption on GDP and carbon dioxide emissions. His study was taken over a twenty-year time frame starting from 1990 and concluding at 2010 on 30 major nuclear energy consuming including the United States and Germany. The data showed nuclear energy can increase a country’s GDP and decrease carbon dioxide emissions in the long run. He stated, “On the other hand, fossil fuels energy consumption also increases GDP growth as well as carbon dioxide emissions in the long run. Moreover, nuclear energy consumption increases GDP growth in the short run and it has a negative short run effect on carbon dioxide emissions. However, fossil fuel energy consumption has a positive short run effect on GDP growth and CO2 emission.” It can be seen that Al-mulali focuses on the economic and environmental impact of nuclear energy.
After the Fukushima incident, Japan shut down all its nuclear power plants to prevent potential accidents of the same nature even though nuclear power makes up 30% of the Japanese economic supply. As a result, more than 90% of Japan’s energy is being imported, leading to higher energy costs. In an article published in “The Economist,” it states that Japan’s need to import energy, such as oil and coal, to operate power stations will cost Japan an extra $93 billion.
The Environmentalists’ Point of View
Nuclear power plants require some means by which heat is released from their core. Some plants use cooling towers or water bodies, either artificial or natural. If a natural water body was used, the release of the hot water will adversely affect the aquatic life. It can cause fluctuations in flow rates of rivers and anomalies in sea level. A study showed that an average rise in sea level of about 3mm/yr of the Northeast coast of US. Since the water discharged is significantly warmer than the lake or sea, this might affect the migration pattern of fish and might kill them. One study has shown that there have been significant drops in the populations of several species of fish in certain regions of US.
Another effect is the release of sulfur dioxide into the air. When sulfur dioxide accumulates in the air, it causes acid rain to form. Not only does acid rain affect water bodies, it extends to affect vegetation and human health. The United States Environmental Protection Agency has shown that acid rain causes heart and lung disorders, such as asthma and bronchitis, which lead to premature death in some cases.
Plutonium-239 constitutes a huge concern. Plutonium-239 is mainly used in atomic bombs and constitutes at least 70% of the total amount of plutonium produced in reactors. The issue here is that if sufficient plutonium of reactor came together accidentally, a chain could occur and result in a wide dispersion of radioactive lethal Plutonium. Plutonium is known to have toxic and carcinogenic effects.
By July of 2012, Alaskan seals are reported to have exhibited hemorrhages and signs and immune deficiency. Scientists believe that the cause of such damage is due to the discharge of nuclear sewage into the Pacific Ocean by Japan. Furthermore, research has shown that radioactive cesium is leaking into the Pacific Ocean three times as high as last year.
The radiation affected vegetation. A Japanese farmer, Mr. Yoshizawa, cannot grow rice or vegetables anymore due to radiation. He said, “I will never be able to grow rice again on this land. No vegetables, no fruit. We can’t even eat the mushrooms that grow in the woods; they are too contaminated. But I will not kill my cows. They are a symbol of the nuclear disaster that happened here”.
The Medical Point of View
This argument directly relates to the people who work in the nuclear power plants and those who live in a close proximity to a nuclear power plant. These people interact with these plants almost on a daily basis.
In the United States, annual emissions for nuclear power plants are limited to 1 mSv (miliSievert) per person per year. Such exposure is estimated to increase the risk of cancer individual by 0.005% per person per year. The maximum amount of radiation exposure to people who work directly with radioactive material is 50 mSv per year and 100 mSv per five years.
The release of radioactive material into the environment poses a great threat to the people and ecosystems from radionuclides. Radionuclides are “carcinogens and at high doses can also cause rapid sickness and death.” The health effects of exposure to radiation depend on many factors, mainly the length of time which exposure occurs, type of radiation, and the person exposed (age, medical history, etc.). On a molecular level, the high energy electrons, affected by radiation, are in motion and can directly impact macromolecules like DNA, or indirectly create free radicals (reactive molecules) by ionizing water. These free radicals can attack the DNA and other cellular components.
The New England Journal of Medicine has shown that if a person is exposed to a radiation dose of 1 Gy or more, acute radiation sickness can occur. Mayo Clinic defined radiation sickness as “damage to your body caused by a large dose of radiation often received over a short period of time (acute). The amount of radiation absorbed by the body — the absorbed dose — determines how sick you’ll be.” Radiation sickness results in damage to the cell to the point where cellular repair is futile, and the cell eventually dies. The effects include nausea, vomiting, fatigue, low white blood cell count, and death in most cases.
The Social Point of View
In 2005,Yale University conducted a survey regarding public opinion of Americans on nuclear power. Following the incident at Fukushima, another survey was taken. It was found that most Americans would associate nuclear power with images of war and disaster and think that it is dangerous and “scary.” The survey states that “only 47 percent of Americans in May 2011 supported building more nuclear power plants, down 6 points from the prior year while only 33 percent supported building a nuclear power plant in their own local area.” It can be inferred that people are afraid of nuclear energy because of the possibility of accidents, meltdowns, and radiation leaks that affect their homes and their health.
On the other hand, David Ropeik of The New York Times presented in his article “Fear vs. Radiation: The Mismatch” that current research shows that radiation under 100 millisieverts causes no “detectable elevations in normal rates of illness and disease.” He states that the radiation from Chernobyl and Fukushima were well below the 100 millisieverts threshold. People believe that radiation is one of the main causes of cancer; however, Ropeik disagrees. A study was done the by The World Health Organization (WHO) over a 20 year time period examining the psychological effect impact of the disaster. The study showed that the psychological impacts did more health damage that the radiation exposure did, and a principal cause of the population’s debilitating stress was “an exaggerated sense of the dangers to health of exposure to radiation.” Another study has shown that operating nuclear power plants do not cause cancer to the residents living nearby, and that the radiation has not harmed the people of Japan.
The World Nuclear Association Point of View
The World Nuclear Association (WNA) is an international organization that promotes the use of nuclear energy and supports the companies that comprise the nuclear power industry. The WNA states that nuclear power plants produce a very small quantity of greenhouse gases as compared to coal or fossil fuel. Thus, nuclear energy will help reduce carbon dioxide emissions and, in the future, avoid them.
Furthermore, Ian Hore-Lacy, Director for Public Communications at the World Nuclear Association, has stated to “The Economist” that the need for a reliable electricity supply will double within two decades. Amid the media frenzy surrounding Fukushima, he stated that we will learn lessons from Fukushima that will help us avoid such tragedy. He states, “The need for nuclear power is driven by several factors which have not changed: the need for a continuous, reliable supply of affordable electricity, the importance of energy security so that fuel for electricity generation is not subject to geopolitical threats and uncertainties, and the need to minimize carbon dioxide emissions from power generation.”
Nuclear proliferation is the spread of nuclear weapons and materials to states that are not recognized as nuclear weapons states by Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). The fear is that terrorists could gain access to such weapons and use them for destruction. Tom Burke, the founding director of Third Generation Environmentalism (E3G), firmly believes that nuclear energy cannot be brought to peace without their availability for war as he has stated in an interview with “The Economist:” “Atoms cannot be made to work for peace without making them available for war.” He also stated that the NPT is only slowing down the spread of nuclear weapons, not preventing it.
Any resolution to the issue of using nuclear energy must begin with the recognition of several common goals between the parties. Four areas of agreement will be examined: the environment, the economy, public safety, and reliable energy source. The following statements represent the grounds on which the parties agree with, but do not imply a common solution.
The environment. The notion of having clean air, water, and soil is a common concern between the parties. The goal is to lower carbon dioxide emissions, which in turn reduces air pollution. It can be understood that the parties want to protect the environment.
The economy. If the economy is in good shape, then it can be inferred that the people are living well and have jobs. As a result, all the parties agree upon the need for a sustainable economy.
Public Safety. In order to build and operate nuclear power plants, the safety of the workers and the community nearby is paramount.
Reliable energy source. The world needs a reliable energy source that is continuous, and affordable. Within two decades, the world electricity-demand will double and the need for another energy source is even more vital.
Even though all the stakeholders agree upon these grounds, they differ in their approach to that common goal. For instance, all people want a reliable energy source; however, environmentalists argue that a reliable energy source is renewable energy such as wind and solar whereas others argue that nuclear energy is a reliable energy source. Furthermore, keeping the environment clean is a common goal, but environmentalists believe that a cleaner environment can be achieved through other sources like solar.
In order to come up with a solution, all of the factors discussed must be taken into account. To make a solution in this case, the “greatest good for greatest number” approach should be applied taking into account reliable energy source, the environment, the economy, and public safety.
Nuclear energy is a source of energy that is both affordable and reliable. Using nuclear energy as a power source will help avoid an energy crisis.
From an environmental perspective, building nuclear power plants helps reduce carbon dioxide levels in the air, and thus result in a cleaner environment. Thus; nuclear energy will help protect the environment.
From an economic point of view, nuclear energy helps create jobs and increase the GDP of a country. This will result in securing economic stability for the country and its people as well as reducing unemployment levels.
Public safety is of huge concern. People fear nuclear energy due the possibility of accidents. Even though their fears are valid, no major nuclear accidents that resulted in casualties have occurred thus far, with the exception of Chernobyl.
To ensure the safety of the public, it would be wise to build the nuclear reactor in underground desolate areas protected with concrete walls. This will help prevent any radiation leaks that will affect the environment and the community. Furthermore, this will help in radiation control and damage control in case of accidents. This solution appeals to all parties since it helps the economy, protects the environment, provides a reliable energy source, and ensures public safety. This solution encompasses the needs of all parties involved and results in their happiness of the majority.
Even though this solution appeals to the majority of people concerned, there are some who are not satisfied with this solution. The people against this solution argue that having nuclear material underground will result in affecting the groundwater, which will in turn affect people’s health. Others object to this idea due to the fact having a nuclear reactor is dangerous and poses a serious threat to the community. Despite the fact that their objections are valid, we must take into consideration the welfare of the majority. Nuclear energy will create jobs, provide cheap energy, and protect the environment, which will provide the “greatest good for the greatest number.” However, this does not mean that they will not be satisfied. They will have a reliable, clean energy source that will provide jobs for people and help the economy, which help make their life better.