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Be cautious when toying with nuclear power

Published: October 24, 2014
Section: Opinions


At many American power stations, a heat source delivers enough heat to boil water into steam. The steam turns a turbine, which in turn pushes a generator that makes distributable electricity. It is these heat sources, however, that define the power plants—from the burning of fossil fuels to the exploitation of our planet’s heat to heat-producing nuclear reactions. Only one of these sources, however, has the capacity to produce immediate catastrophic results: nuclear energy.

Nuclear power has been an awkward discussion topic among both green energy advocates and detractors, primarily due to its association with the bomb. Many irrationally fear it due to the atomic bomb. Its association with the bomb is not fair, but one must still recognize the possibility of catastrophic core meltdowns and the very real, current issue revolving around spent fuel. Meltdown catastrophes can happen, and they shouldn’t be ignored just because of their rarity. It wasn’t just rotten luck—being that one in a million chance—that caused the Fukushima Daiichi disaster; it was nature to blame.

It wasn’t just luck that caused the 1979 Three Mile Island Incident either; it was human error. No matter how rare catastrophes are, and no matter the advanced technology in place to prevent disaster, natural circumstances and human error will still occur, and there will never be a way to stop those. It is not irrational for someone to fear future nuclear energy catastrophes based on past ones.

That being said, environmental issues surrounding both functional and disengaged nuclear power stations still exist, albeit not in the form of carbon dioxide emissions. The disaster at Fukushima, which occurred over three years ago, still has grave implications on the area today. According to an article published on Oct. 12 in The Japan Times from the Japanese JIJI newswire, radioactive tritium levels in a well near one of the reactors hit 150,000 becquerels per liter. According to the NRC (Nuclear Regulatory Commission), the American EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) defines a maximum constant safe drinking water level of tritium at 740 becquerels.

Levels of radioactive strontium-90, according to The Japan Times’ article, hit 1.2 million becquerels per liter after the storm. The EPA defines the maximum safe level of strontium-90 at 0.296 becquerels. It would be an understatement to say that the Fukushima area isn’t safe by any standard. It will likely be many years before any living thing can safely live there.

Many may still point to the crisis of radiation in the water in Fukushima as an isolated case caused by a nuclear disaster, and this is true to an extent, but many American nuclear facilities that haven’t melted down are also leaking. According to a Greenpeace fact sheet, over 20 American nuclear plants have admitted to leaking tritium into the environment since 2006. The truth for many American nuclear power stations is that their private nature can put priorities in the wrong order. Some of these stations would rather make money on decaying facilities and worry about the consequences later. Such is the case for a nuclear station around two hours from Brandeis.

Everyone from protesters to Vermont governor Peter Shumlin have criticized the facility, known locally as Vermont Yankee. According to an undated statement from the Governor’s office, it was time to “move on” from the “aging” facility owned by an out-of-state corporation to a better “energy future” for Vermonters. It was this same facility that in 2011 was responsible for a tritium leak that, in a Jan. 21, 2011 statement from the Governor’s Office, concerned Shumlin. The facility is set to close at the end of this year.

Several of the other facilities named in the Greenpeace factsheet are now shuttered, spent fuel sitting on their porches—the same spent fuel that is the center of another controversy. Nevada’s Yucca Mountain, the proposed facility to house the nation’s nuclear waste materials, has been studied since the 1980s, and still isn’t open. In the meantime, spent nuclear fuels that will be radioactive for thousands of generations exist, and their numbers are only going to increase with an increase in nuclear facilities.

Obviously, nuclear energy has its positives in the immense power it can produce, but it also has negatives that can have severe consequences. Nuclear fuel is non-renewable, and it will be around as an unusable radioactive waste product with no final location yet to be concretely determined for hundreds of thousands of years. Human error, natural disasters and other out-of-the-ordinary events can result in catastrophic results, like at Chernobyl and Fukushima Daiichi.

It is too volatile a prospect to make a decision about lightly. Some areas surrounding Chernobyl are still dangerous, and living near Fukushima is out of the question. We need to think of our energy future and ask ourselves how long we want to burden our children with the byproducts of a non-renewable energy system. We cannot assure a safe future for our planet with the threat of radiation looming behind us. We need a sustainable, clean and renewable resource that can harness the power nuclear energy can without the unsatisfactory byproducts. Only then can we assure a bright and safe energy future for humanity and all other living things on Earth.