Nuclear power still viable as energy source

The disaster in Japan has shaken many people around the world who were shocked at its speed and severity. The subsequent malfunctions to nuclear power plants caused by the earthquake and tsunami threaten to shake people’s confidence in the viability of nuclear power.

Although the results of an accident can be dramatic, there is good reason to believe that the advanced technology of new safety systems and stringent regulation make nuclear power a relatively low-risk venture. This is particularly true when it is compared to the continual risk of pollution associated with fossil fuels, which damage both the environment and human health.

Most nuclear plants in the United States are not subject to the same risk of seismic activity as the one in Japan and are designed based on the historical pattern of seismic activity in their unique area. They are also built to withstand other potential disasters; for example, plants built since 9/11 are able to withstand being struck by an airplane.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission mandates safety in design and operational procedures, and these are updated as potential hazards are recognized. The failure of the Fukushima Plants will likely spark another increase in safety standards as another potential scenario is taken into consideration.

Much of the reason for the failure of the Fukushima plant was that it was an old model, its design dating from the 1970s, and it was not equipped with the latest safety equipment. In fact there had been criticisms of its design before the accident took place.

One of the main problems that occurred at Fukushima was that the diesel generator that was supposed to pump water into the core and cool it was rendered unusable. As the temperature rose higher the existing water in the system began to boil. That water could not be replaced, and eventually the water level dropped to the point where part of the fuel rods were exposed. When the fuel rods are exposed, small amounts of radioactive material can escape through the venting system that is used to let the steam out.

Modern plants are designed with multiple redundancies, meaning that there is a backup for the main system and then another backup, which each depend on different power sources. When dealing with things like diesel generators and batteries that can be used to pump water in to cool down the system, this is good news. In some new plants, the cooling system does not even require power to activate — the water is held above the core and allowed to rain down in the event of overheating.

A similar passive cooling system is used in the containment area so that if the core were to be compromised, pressure would not build up to dangerous levels within containment. This system also removes some of the potential for human error in the procedure. Reactor operators are trained to deal with loss of power through sets procedures and simulations, and the plants can operate long enough to shut down even if they experience a complete loss of both offsite and onsite power.

In the event of a leak that allows airborne radiation near the plant, the control rooms of new plants are supplied with compressed air tanks that would keep the control room habitable for several days while crews inside worked to bring the reactor back under control.

Considering how complex all these measures are, you may wonder why we go through all this trouble for nuclear power. For one thing, it can be domestically produced, so we aren’t dependent on oil from OPEC or subject to the severe price fluctuations associated with gasoline. The price per kilowatt of energy produced is fairly cheap at under two cents per kilowatt hour, compared to oil which is usually around seven cents per kilowatt hour (and subject to serious fluctuations), or solar which unsubsidized can cost between twenty and twenty five cents per kilowatt hour.

This is a boon for the domestic economy, as is the fact that the building and operation of plants creates many high-skill jobs in the area where they’re built. In addition, when reactors are operating normally, there is very little pollution. Nuclear power does not produce carbon dioxide, nitrous oxides (smog), sulfur dioxide (which contributes to acid rain) or contaminated water in the way that coal or natural gas can. The quantity of fuel needed is also significantly less, since one ton of uranium can produce as much energy as several million tons of coal or several million barrels of oil.

Although solar or wind power has even more appeal from an environmental perspective, the volume of power produced by renewables is not yet anywhere near comparable. Nuclear power provides twenty percent of our electricity, while renewables total around one percent. Around seventy percent of the carbon free energy produced in the United States derives from nuclear power, with hydroelectric being the other major player. In fact, nuclear power is frequently referred to as a “bridge fuel” that allows the economy to gradually phase out fossil fuels while waiting for renewable sources to become more efficient and affordable.

In light of this information, it is important to insist on safety in the operation of nuclear power plants without succumbing to a visceral fear of improbable potential disasters. Looking ahead to a future marked by climate change and declining oil reserves, it’s not the time to set aside a viable energy source. Rather, it’s time to make sure that it is produced in a responsible and intelligent manner.

Although the world watches in alarm as the Fukushima plants malfunction, that event should serve as a wake-up call for improvements in design and procedure, not for a rejection of the industry as a whole.