The earthquakes, tsunamis, and aftershock tremors that rocked Japan have caused three of the country’s nuclear power plants to be compromised. While none of these accidents are as bad as the explosion that took place in Chernobyl that is still damaging the environment around it today, the long term effects that these nuclear catastrophes will have on Japan and it’s people have yet to be seen.
It is specifically due to this natural disaster that I have begun seeing people question the wisdom of relying on nuclear power.
The element, uranium, is an extremely plentiful element that is found in the earth’s crust, it is enriched and made into metal rods. These rods are inserted into reactors that cause a controlled nuclear chain reaction to occur using the fission process. Cooling systems remove heat from the reactor core and transport it to an area where thermal energy is used to heat a boiler. The steam produced from the boiler is used in steam turbine or electric generators. The rods inside of a reactor, typically, last for 6 years before they are moved to a spent fuel pool for approximately 6 more years. Spent fuel pools are pools of treated water where the radioactive isotopes generated by fission can harmlessly decay away. Once radioactive and thermal levels have cooled to safe levels, the rods are either reprocessed or moved to a dry storage cask. Nuclear power is a clean and renewable energy source that is responsible for producing around 400 gigawatt of power in the United States, Japan, and France.
As you can see, there are great benefits of using nuclear fission for the production of power, but there are severe drawbacks as well.
Fission, basically, splits an atom into two of more separate nuclei using kinetic energy. By using neutron poisons and moderators, these fission products create more fissions at a controlled rate and the process repeats until the element is eventually spent. Unfortunately, the side effects of fissions are gamma radiation and free neutrons, both of which are lethal to the environment, wildlife, and human beings. Essentially, if you step out of the ‘controlled environment’ atmosphere, the fission process becomes an invisible, radioactive, toxin. If a reactor’s chemical cooling system is compromised, the fission process begins accelerating until the reactor gets so hot it goes into a meltdown mode. Eventually, the fission process will cause a nuclear explosion, throwing gamma radiation and free neutrons into the atmospheric winds and weather patterns.
As early as 1946, a different type of nuclear reaction was being experimented with called fusion. This process fuses two light atomic nuclei together into one heavier nucleus, releasing a large amount of energy and heat that can be used to run steam turbines or electric generators. Unlike it’s fission counterpart, however, fusion naturally stops occurring once the reactor environment is breached so there is no possibility of a radiological meltdown of materials that could endanger environment, wildlife, or human beings. Uranium is not an element involved in the fusion process either, it uses elements found in sea water – specifically the hydrogen elements Deuterium and Tritium – which could supply the world with power for 100s of millions of years. The problem with the fusion process is that scientists have not, yet, been able to build a reactor that can contain the plasma used to keep the nuclear chain reaction going. As recently as 2010, scientists have gotten a nuclear fusion reactor to produce more than 1 megajoule of ultraviolet energy before it was compromised.
In my own opinion, if and when scientists are able to build a reactor that can contain the plasma needed to keep the nuclear fusion process in a “chain reactive” state, the world will become a much safer place because:
- This type of nuclear energy, once available commercially, would radically change the availability of a nuclear power program to all countries around the world. Since a weapons reactor completely differs from a fusion power reactor, nuclear proliferation would become much easier to track, prove, and put a stop to.
- This type of nuclear energy does not -naturally- continue the nuclear chain reaction process outside of a contained environment. Essentially, in a worst case scenario of a reactor explosion, the radiation would be within acceptable limits by the time it hit the perimeter of the fence surrounding the power plant.
- In the event of a nuclear meltdown, the waste produced from a fission reactor is radioactively dangerous to for thousands of years. In contrast, with a fusion reactor, only a small area around the facility becomes contaminated for approximately 100 years before radiation levels drop to the levels of coal or ash.
- This type of nuclear energy uses elements that are commonly found in sea water which are easily accessible and plentiful. Aside from the initial market reaction to these facilities, prices would even out at a much quicker rate than the volatile prices of fossil fuels.
For now, however, fission is the only commercially available version of nuclear energy that is available to mankind. The powers that be have determined that the benefits far outweigh the risks of potential disasters associated with this process and they are pursuing the fusion process with signs of success.
So, I tend to think that it is in the best interest of every person in the world to pursue research in nuclear fusion power plants as opposed to funding the building of more nuclear fission power plants.
What do you think?