The Nuclear Option

“The trouble with most folks isn’t so much their ignorance, as knowing so many things that ain’t so.”  Josh Billings, 19th century humorist

As America seeks to define alternatives to conventional fossil fuels for the generation of electricity, we often hear of the “green” alternatives of wind and solar farms, but followers of discussions here and elsewhere know that those alternatives are not viable on their own merit and that they require significant government supplements – our tax dollars.  Furthermore, we truly don’t know the overall environmental impact of covering acre after acre with solar panels that block sunlight from hitting the soil, or with wind turbines that alter the natural air patterns, perhaps causing unanticipated climatologic affects or affecting the migratory patterns of wildlife.

 

Why wouldn’t we consider a more conventional and proven technology?  As was asked of Harry Reid during the healthcare debate, why not consider the nuclear option?

Is it safe?  What is the truth about Three Mile Island or Chernobyl? 

In 1979 and coincidentally shortly after the release of Jane Fonda’s film The China Syndrome, an incident occurred at the Three Mile Island nuclear power generating facility near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.  Several days of near panic and near hysteria (I was there, and saw it first hand), no doubt fueled by the movie and the media, ensued, but in the end nothing of great consequence happened, and much was learned about the safety and the deficiencies of nuclear power plant design.  The actual chronology of those events is well documented here and elsewhere.

A “China syndrome” occurs when radioactive fuel is spilled on the bottom of the reactor vessel and begins to eat away at the reactor, presumably eroding its way to China.  As Theodore Rockwell reports in the December 2009 edition of Mechanical Engineering Magazine, the Magazine of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers…

“It is ironic that the Three Mile Island reactor accident should become a symbol of the fear of nuclear power. The accident showed that concerns over the inherent safety of nuclear reactors have been exaggerated far beyond the facts. The accident that created 10 to 20 tons of molten fuel that slumped several feet down onto the bottom of the reactor vessel – initiating the dreaded China Syndrome – showed that, in the real world, the reactor vessel froze the fuel and stopped the journey to China at five-eighths of an inch.”

 
There are two separate nuclear generating plants on Three Mile Island.  The second one operated without interruption during the incident.

So the much anticipated and dreaded China syndrome didn’t occur at Three Mile Island, but how much radiation was released to the atmosphere?  According to David J. Allard of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, who repeatedly studied this aspect of the event for over 20 years since it occurred, there have been no health effects as a result of the reactor meltdown.  In fact, he measured a higher concentration of fission products in the atmosphere over central Pennsylvania in the mid-‘70’s as a result of a nuclear weapons test in China than ever was measured as a result of Three Mile Island.

Chernobyl was a different animal entirely, using graphite rods to control and moderate the reaction process, as fully described here.  Graphite, which is not used in current commercial reactors, burned for ten days and released fission products directly into the atmosphere.  Engineered safety systems which might have minimized or prevented the accident had been disabled for testing of new generator voltage regulation equipment.  Operator training and the “safety culture” were grossly inadequate.  The reactor complex was designed and constructed without a true containment structure!

People died.  Fifty plant workers who stayed to fight the fire ultimately died as a result of physical injuries, coronary complications, and of radiation poisoning.  While ten children also ultimately died of thyroid problems attributed to the accident, the incidence of leukemia, the anticipated long-term effect, has not increased in the region since this event according to the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation.

So how do these two isolated events compare to the “big picture” throughout the world?  As is documented at this site, there were 436 operating reactors and 53 more under construction in late September of 2009, representing 370 Gigawatts of generated electrical power, an additional 47GW pending, and 13,475 cumulative hours of operating experience.  So, with over thirteen thousand hours of operation, we’ve had two incidents, only one of which resulted in death, and that from a reactor that in no way resembles current technology. 

Then what about waste disposal?

The radioactive elements that power modern reactors are contained within ceramic “rods.”  As the radioactivity is consumed beyond the point of being useable, new rods are introduced and the spent ones are submerged in a large pool of water until they are 99.99% decayed.  They are then placed in a dry fuel cask that can be safely stored on a concrete platform on site, where they sit hazard free for decades until they can be recycled into new fuel.  There are no trucks carrying radioactive waste down the interstate for disposal in a landfill as has been depicted in the information and entertainment mediums.  Refer to the quote at the introduction to this post.

So what does this mean?  It means that nuclear energy is a safe source of heat for electrical generation.  It means that the nuclear option is viable, economical, environmentally friendly, and should be not only considered, but encouraged.  It means that the ridiculously long approval process of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission must be streamlined so that clean, safe and efficient nuclear power facilities can be expediently constructed in the United States to satisfy the needs of a struggling economy. 

I “survived” Three Mile Island, and might still have the tee shirt documenting that, and I strongly support the construction of nuclear power generating facilities.

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