Nuclear Power and The Hazards People Fear
The hazards are real but it is the public perception of nuclear safety that poses a problem for nuclear advocates. Due to widely publicized problems with a few nuclear reactors, the hazards lead many people to fear the nuclear energy source.
Though newer technology has provided the opportunity to build nuclear power plants with safety features far superior to those used thirty years ago, recent accidents have set the nuclear industry on its head.
The greatest fear for the public is that of radiation leaked into the air and water. Subatomic particles can travel near the speed of light and penetrate the human body. Radiation cannot be seen by the human eye and this makes it more frightening as it is an invisible attack.
Radioactive particles damage cells in our body and can cause cancer or lead to genetic abnormalities in our children. Nuclear energy relies on the use or radiation to produce electricity.
Small doses of radiation may escape through normal plant operations but it is damage to the plant that causes the most concern. We've seen pictures of radiation damage from as far back as World War II. Stories about the carnage at Chernobyl are enough to create panic about the possibility of a meltdown at a nuclear reactor.
Radiation is not confined to nuclear energy. It is around us naturally every day. When you have an x-ray during a medical examination you are bombarded with radioactive particles. An x-ray will allow 100 billion radioactive particles to strike your body and in living your daily life you are exposed to about 15,000 particles of radiation every second.
These may seem like high numbers but the chance of particles at this level causing disease in your body is 1 in 30 quintillion (one quintillion is a million billion). The hazards of radiation are a concern but the risks generate fear that is out of proportion to the true risk.
Though there is widespread caution from the medical community about the damage of solar radiation for those who lie out in the sun and allow their skin to tan or burn, the radiation in our environment accounts for only about 1% of the cancers we develop. When it comes to radiation, the hazards are often discussed as dire warnings though the scientific evidence shows the risks are fairly low.
It is estimated all of the combined radiation risks from plant operation storage of nuclear waste and accidents at nuclear reactors would raise the level of exposure and might reduce the life expectancy overall by one hour. That is compared to the burning of fossil fuels and the associated pollution which is estimated to reduce life span by 3-40 days.
Radioactive Waste Disposal
One of the greatest hazards is involved with storage of nuclear waste. Low level nuclear waste from medical treatments and other sources need to be safety stored for 50-100 years. At that time, the radiation has waned and the waste can be disposed of by normal waste management procedures.
High level radioactive waste is a different story. The chain reaction in a fuel rod used to product nuclear energy does not stop when the spent fuel rod is replaced. The half-life of the radioactive elements is a measure of how long it will take before the substance is safe to handle. For high level nuclear waste, this can be hundreds of years.
The storage facilities we design and use in our lifetime must be able to guarantee safety for generations to come. Of all hazards, storage is by far the most difficult to solve. Some countries now recycle nuclear waste and that is one potential solution if we can develop technology that will safely recycle high level nuclear waste.
Another may be building newer breeder reactors that use less fuel and use that fuel over a much longer span of time. This would greatly increase the number of years nuclear energy could be a major source of power as it would slow depletion of uranium mines.
As we have recently seen in Japan, even the best systems are never totally safe. However, the same is true of any power plant. The number of diseases and deaths from emissions of fossil fuels plants over the years exceeds damage to human life in nuclear power plan accidents.
The public's fear of nuclear power is out of proportion to the reality but that fear has kept more nuclear reactors from being built in the past generation.
If we are to access the tremendous source of power that nuclear plants can provide, it will be necessary for nuclear proponents to change the public's perception.