How Can We Restore Nuclear Energy?
To create usable power, nuclear energy is recovered by applying the process of fission to uranium. It's not a simple process but uranium is widely available globally and in its natural form is not a dangerous substance. Mined uranium must be processed to remove the uranium from rock.
The uranium is then enriched to increase the proportion of uranium-235 to uranium-238. U-235 is the uranium atom that can be easily split when bombarded in the fission process.
Very basically, by splitting one atom of U-235, smaller atoms are then released and as thee are also split a chain reaction begins that continues under it's own power.
The heat generated by splitting U-235 atoms is tremendous and this heat is then used to create steam which turns turbines and causes generators to produce electricity.
Fission is only one part of the story of how the power from nuclear energy is being recovered around the world. The process that allows fission to create a chain reaction is the same process that creates the dangers associated with nuclear power.
When the uranium that is the fuel for a plant producing nuclear energy is recovered through mining operations, it is safe to handle and can be easily transported.
Even after the U-235 pellets have been processed and placed insite a nine inch thick stainless steel fuel rod, that fuel rod is safe for a worker to handle with just a pair of gloves on his hands.
Once the fuel rod is in place, the safety factors change drastically. The fission process that allows nuclear energy to be recovered and used to produce electricity creates a radioactive fuel rod with a reaction that is ongoing in the pellets inside the container.
When a spent fuel rod is removed and replaced with a new, fresh fuel source for nuclear energy, it is recovered using mechanical arms and workers remain in shielded areas away from the reactor's core.
How is Nuclear Energy Recovered after a Crisis?
The faith in nuclear energy never recovered in the U.S. after the partial core meltdown at the Three Mile Island reactor in 1979. Prior to that, nuclear power was considered the energy source of the future. Plants were in operation and more nuclear reactors were on the drawing boards and in the planning stages.
The public had some concerns about the safety of nuclear power plants but for the most part saw nuclear energy recovered from widely available uranium as a way to avoid the shortages of oil that caused long liens at gasoline pumps in the mid-70s. Three Mile Island was the worst nuclear accident in the U.S. It was a power plant operated as a public utility located in Pennsylvania.
Most incidents at nuclear power plants are quickly controlled by workers or automated shut-down systems but whenever there has been a core meltdown or a serious incident endangering public health and welfare, it seems to be a combination of failed systems or human error that is the leading cause.
When the Three Mile Island incident began it was due to failure of a secondary system. This was a non-nuclear system but was followed by mistakes with the pilot-operated relief valve which was stuck in the open position.
This allowed nuclear reactor coolant to escape from the plant. Due to inadequate training and experience, workers were slow to realize there had been a loss of coolant. One operator overrode the automatic emergency cooling system when a light indicated it was activated.
The Three Mile Island incident evolved over a full five days. During this time frame, employees of the electric utility company, Pennsylvania state regulators and officials and members of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission failed to communicate properly to the public.
The various groups of officials did not agree on evacuation parameters. Many details remained hidden for some time and, when they were finally released, the conclusion was that residents had been exposed to very low levels of risk.
This report was not believed as it had become known the NRC had authorized releasing 40,000 gallons of water loaded with radioactive waste into the local river. Even today, most people think of this incident as a major catastrophe even though the system and operator errors did not result in leaks of large amounts of radiation.
The 1979 incident at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania led to a change in public opinion about nuclear energy that has not recovered to this day in the U.S. Even though there was a meltdown that did not lead to a public health crisis, the fear lodged in the minds of many who had previously supported development of more nuclear energy power plants.
The safety features today are far advanced over the technology that was present at Three Mile Island. Workers are better trains and even backup safety systems have backups.
Once set, public opinion is difficult to change. The potential of nuclear energy has not recovered from that one terrifying incident. Though over 100 nuclear plants continue to produce electricity in the U.S. the plants were built years ago and no new plants have come online.