When most people think of a nuclear threat, they think of a nuclear attack from a foreign nation. In reality, the largest nuclear threat comes not from foreign attack, but from a much closer enemy: nuclear power. Nuclear power is very dangerous, and should be done away with. The nuclear age dawned in 1945, when the United States dropped atomic bombs on two Japanese cities, Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The bombing had at least two effects: the Japanese surrender, bringing World War II to a swift end; and many people in the United States, especially scientists and officials involved in the development of atomic bombs, were awed, frightened and filled with guilt over the death and destruction they had caused. Some psychologists and historians believe that guilt, more than any other reason, led the United States government to invest billions of dollars to develop peacetime uses of nuclear energy, in a kind of crusade to show that nuclear energy could be a force for good. Research for military purposes, particularly the development of nuclear-powered submarines, suggested that atomic energy had commercial possibilities. In the late 50 s utilities began to apply for licenses to build and operate nuclear power plants. (Murphy 36) The AEC smoothed the path. It spent billions of dollars on research and provided financial help for the first several large commercial nuclear power stations.
Nuclear energy seemed like a sure bet, a wonderful new technology that could be highly profitable. Nuclear development gained momentum during the 1960 s. Scores of plants were under construction; about three dozen more were ordered, and in 1968 the AEC predicted that a thousand nuclear power plants would be operating by the year 2000. To most of the general public, it seemed that a golden nuclear age lay just ahead. (Murphy 39) By 1975, however, the AEC had been abolished. By early 1976 utilities had canceled orders for twenty-five nuclear plants.
The prospects of nuclear power dimmed further with the 1979 accident at Pennsylvania's Three Mile Island plant. Another blow fell in 1986, when the nuclear disaster occurred at Chernobyl in the Soviet Union. One hundred and sixteen nuclear plants had been canceled in the United States by March 31, 1988. (Murphy 43) The primary reason for this extraordinary change is concern about safety. Many people see the existing form of nuclear power as unsafe technology with a potential for catastrophe. There have been multiple examples of this throughout the history of nuclear power including the Browns Ferry, Three Mile Island, and Chernobyl incidents.
A serious incident occurred at a nuclear power plant in 1975 as a result of a fire started by a candle. On March 22, 1975, two large reactors at Browns Ferry, Alabama were operating and generating 2, 200 megawatts of electricity. Beneath the plant's control center, electricians were trying to seal air leaks among the complex array of electrical cables that made up the electrical system of the two reactors. (Stephens 15) The leaks were being sealed by stuffing strips of polyurethane foam among the cables. To test for air leaks, the electricians held a lighted candle near the plastic foam to see whether the flame flickered.
Some of the foam caught on fire. Three chemical extinguishers failed to put it out. After fifteen minutes a fire alarm sounded. Meanwhile, the fire was spreading and destroying cables that affect the plant's electrical systems including the reactor's Emergency Core Cooling System. A small pump had to be used to keep the fuel core covered with water to prevent a meltdown. (Stephens 17-19) The fire burned for six hours destroying 1, 600 cables.
Both reactors were shut down for nearly months. The cost of repairs and buying electricity from other sources totaled more than 300 million dollars. (Stephens 21) The Browns Ferry incident represents a close call with catastrophe. Engineers of the Tennessee Valley Authority, which operates the plant, said that "sheer luck" had prevented a potentially disastrous release of radiation. One worker with a candle accidentally revealed serious flaws in the safety systems of nuclear power plants. On March 28, 1979, a minor malfunction occurred in the system which feeds water to the steam generators at the Three Mile Unit 2 Nuclear Generating Station.
During routine maintenance of the secondary side, feed water to the steam generators was interrupted. The loss of feed water caused the primary systems to overheat causing the primary system to increase. The reactor protective system scrammed the reactor but not before the system pressure caused one of the pressure regulating valves to open. (Baratta 32, Stephens 13) Unfortunately, when the pressure in the reactor decreased, the valve failed to completely close resulting in a small break loss of coolant accident. The emergency core cooling systems actuated as the system pressure continued to drop. Because of an incorrect interpretation of the instrument readings the operators terminated the operation of these systems.
This caused the core to eventually overheat. The fuel cladding rapidly oxidized releasing hydrogen to the containment and further accelerating the process. Eventually, a significant portion of the fuel melted and flowed into the lower part of the core and lower reactor vessel head. (Baratta 38) Large amounts of radioactive noble gasses were released to the containment atmosphere. Some of these were released to the environment. Despite the severity of the damage, no injuries due to radiation occurred.
There were, however, significant health affects due to the psychological stress on individuals living in the area. The accident itself progressed to the point where over 90% of the reactor core was damaged. The containment building in which the reactor is located as well as several other locations around the plant were contaminated. The financial damage to the utility was very large, 1 billion dollars or more. The resulting contamination and state of the reactor core led to the development of a ten year cleanup. (Tredici 67) The incident at Three Mile Island is yet another example of how dangerous nuclear power really is.
Because of human error, poorly trained operators, and incapable operating systems, another nuclear disaster was narrowly missed. Sheer luck and coincidence was all that saved the world from a nuclear catastrophe. Because of the Three Mile Island incident new rules and laws were laid down for the operation of nuclear power plants. This had little or no effect on nuclear plants outside the US, however. On April 26, 1986, another serious incident alarmed the world. One of four nuclear reactors at Chernobyl in the former USSR, exploded and burned.
Radioactive material spread over Scandinavia and northern Europe. According to the official report issued in August, the accident was caused by unauthorized testing of the reactor by its operators. (Nardo 28) The reactor went out of control; there were two explosions, the top of the reactor blew off, and the core was ignited, burning at temperatures of 1500 degrees Celsius. Radiation about 50 times that at Three Mile Island exposed people nearest the reactor, and a cloud of radioactive fallout spread westward. More than 30 people died. The plant was encased in concrete.
By 1988, however, the other three Chernobyl reactors were back in operation. One of the remaining reactors was shut down in 1991 due to a fire in the reactor building. (Melvedel 38, Nardo 32) The incident at Chernobyl is the most severe nuclear power plant disaster in history. Even considering the magnitude of this disaster, the remaining reactors are in use today. This is yet another example of the dangers of nuclear power. This one not only resulting in property damage, but also in human lives.
Nuclear power has proven time and time again to be extremely dangerous. Yet all over the United States and the world nuclear power plants continue to produce electricity, endangering the lives of millions. Some experts believe that the benefits of nuclear power outweigh the risks. Their justification is that nuclear power is a good, clean source of energy. While it is true that atomic energy does not produce the air pollution or consume the valuable resources of conventional power sources, it does produce hazardous, radioactive waste which cannot be safely disposed of. The waste can only be stored until it is no longer toxic, which is projected at thousands of years.
Another point that supporters of nuclear power point out is that the military benefits from it. Once again, this is a good point. The Navy, in particular, takes advantage of nuclear power by using generators on board its ships to enable them to stay at sea for longer periods of time. While this is a definite advantage since the military needs to maintain superiority over other milit aries, it is just an exception to the rule. Militaries are dangerous by nature, so nuclear generators do not really increase the danger to servicemen's lives by a large factor. If things continue as they have, more nuclear accidents are sure to happen.
It was only due to luck that the nuclear accidents in the United States were not much worse. If nuclear energy is not done away with, the people of the world need to be prepared for a disastrous accident on a larger scale than any in modern history. Bibliography Baratta, Tony. The Three Mile Island Reactor Incident. web 1997 Hamilton, Sue. Chernobyl: Nuclear Power Plant Explosion (The Day of the Disaster) Lincolnwood, Illinois: Publications International, Ltd.
, 1990 Melvedel, Zh ores A. The legacy of Chernobyl. New York, New York. Enterprise Publications, 1991 Murphy, Arthur W. The Nuclear Power Controversy. London, England.
Prentice-Hall International, Inc. , 1976 Nardo, Don. Chernobyl. San Diego, California. Lucent Books, Inc. , 1990 Stephens, Mark.
Three Mile Island. New York, New York. Random House, Inc. , 1980 Tredici, Robert Del.
The People of Three Mile Island. San Fransisco, California. Sierra Club Books, 1980.