Is Nuclear Power the Answer?
THE world, and particularly the United States, faces a power crisis because available energy sources—coal, oil and natural gas—are in short supply. What is the answer?
Many experts say: Nuclear power! The Scientific American, in September 1971, said: “If ever an energy source can be said to have arrived in the nick of time, it is nuclear energy.”
A Growing Industry
Already more than twenty nuclear electric power plants are in operation in the United States, with over a hundred more either being built or on order. About 2 percent of the nation’s electricity is produced by these facilities, and by 1980 the amount generated is predicted to increase to 10 or even 25 percent. Other countries, too, are using nuclear energy to generate electricity. In 1970 over ninety nuclear power plants were producing electrical power outside the United States.
That there is tremendous power within the atom is beyond question. This was well demonstrated at Hiroshima, Japan, in 1945. There, a single relatively small nuclear device blasted the city apart, killing over 92,000 persons. People also remember that for decades afterward many in the vicinity of the explosion continued to sicken and die from radiation-caused cancer.
So people understandably wonder: Is it safe to split atoms and harness the resulting energy to produce electricity? Can the radioactivity that is produced harm man?
The Atomic Energy Commission and the electric power industry would have people believe that atomic energy is safe. Television commercials and other advertisements regularly give this impression. One of them shows a burning match, and says in effect: A nuclear power plant emits less pollution than this match.
However, certain news reports may cause one to wonder how true these claims are. For example, a Minnesota nuclear plant was granted an operating license by the Atomic Energy Commission that would permit a stack release of 41,400 curies a day in radioactive emissions. But the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency wanted to set the limit at 860 curies. Some scientists fear that radioactive emissions greater than this present a threat to public health. Two scientists, John W. Gofman and Arthur R. Tamplin, wrote in the Scientific American:
“We are convinced, on the basis of our research, that radiation to be expected from the rapidly-burgeoning atomic energy programs is a far more serious hazard than previously thought possible. . . .
“And we believe that the public is being deceived by a clever, well-financed propaganda campaign of delusion about ‘clean, cheap, safe nuclear power.’”
Could there be truth to such charges? How do nuclear power plants generate electricity? How is it that they discharge radioactive debris?
How Nuclear Power Is Produced
Contrary to popular impression, electric power is not generated directly from the splitting of atoms (nuclear fission) within a nuclear reactor. Rather, fission within the reactor simply produces a source of heat. It thus replaces the furnace of a conventional plant. Heat from the reactor boils water and produces steam. The steam turns a turbine, and the turbine, in turn, drives a generator to produce electricity.
The nuclear reactor’s tremendous heat is produced in long, slender, metal-clad fuel rods. These are filled with small pellets of uranium dioxide, which give each rod the potential energy of 6,000 tons of coal. In a large reactor there may be some 40,000 fuel rods that contain over a hundred tons of uranium pellets. That is more uranium than is found in over a hundred atomic bombs! The reactor’s heat is produced by the splitting of atoms of the uranium isotope U-235.
In the fission process a neutron hits a U-235 atom and usually splits it into two smaller atoms. The splitting releases not only heat but also two or three neutrons, which, in turn, hit and split other atoms. Thus a chain reaction of nuclear fission occurs. In a large reactor about 10,000,000,000,000,000 atoms are split every second!
In order to control the rate of the fission process, long control rods that absorb flying neutrons are inserted into the reactor core. Thus the rate of fission is controlled by the positioning in the core of these rods. By sliding them all the way in, all neutrons are absorbed and fission ceases.
Release of Radioactive Debris
As billions of uranium atoms in the reactor split every second they form smaller atoms of other elements that are radioactive. In a year’s time a large reactor produces as much long-persisting radioactivity as would be emitted in the explosion of a thousand Hiroshima bombs! As long as this tremendous amount of radioactivity stays within the fuel rods, there is no immediate problem. But it does not all stay there.
Gaseous atoms leak out through imperfections in the metal casings of the fuel rods. Accumulation of this radioactivity poses a threat to those who have to do maintenance work in the plant. Radioactivity is emitted into the air through the plant’s stack. Radioactivity also gets into the water used in the reactor, and is thus released into a river or lake.
It is argued, however, that the radioactive debris released in the air and water is insufficient to harm man. But even if no radiation falls directly on humans in the immediate vicinity, still there is a grave danger to those living many miles away. For radioactivity can become concentrated in food supplies. It may, for example, settle on grass, be eaten by cows and become concentrated in their milk. Children who drink the milk may then receive dangerous doses of radioactivity.
Many scientists are concerned, especially since hundreds of nuclear plants may soon be expelling radioactive debris. Dr. Ernest J. Sternglass, a professor of radiation physics at the University of Pittsburgh Medical School, believes that already nuclear power plants are responsible for infant deaths. He offers data that show, he says, an “excess” of infant deaths in areas near nuclear reactors.
What About Accidents?
Besides these controlled radioactive emissions, many are worried about the possibility of accidents. In the event of an earthquake, for example, some fear that a nuclear plant could be broken open and tremendous amounts of radioactive debris scattered to the winds! Or what about a saboteur planting a bomb? Even the thought of the possibility is chilling!
But accidents are also possible due to human error or equipment malfunction. The most probable form of disaster, according to nuclear engineers, is a reactor’s sudden loss of coolant water. This could occur, for example, if someone closed a wrong valve or if a pipe ruptured. Due to the increase of heat the fuel would melt, and the buildup of pressure might result in radioactivity being spewed far and wide.
In 1966 such a malfunction actually occurred. A baffle plate dislodged, blocking the flow of coolant in a nuclear reactor near Detroit, Michigan. This caused an overheating of the fuel elements and a melting down of some of the fuel. For a while no one involved knew whether the whole Detroit area would have to be evacuated. Writers have called it “an event as close to Armageddon as this country has ever known.”
Already large amounts of radioactive debris have been released due to accidents at nuclear facilities. One accident occurred at Windscale, England. So much radioactivity was spewed out that the government seized all growing food in a 400-mile area around the plant. Due to releases from that facility, radioactivity in the nearby Irish Sea is so high that embryo fishes display deformed backbones! More recently, something went wrong at a Northern States Power Company plant and 10,000 gallons of radioactive water were dumped into the Mississippi River, causing Minneapolis to close its water-intake gates.
But there is perhaps an even greater potential danger.
Disposal of Radioactive Wastes
The radioactive wastes that accumulate in a nuclear reactor must periodically be removed, for they will cause a reactor to lose power. So about every two years a large reactor must be shut down and the wastes removed. That means handling as much long-lived radioactive poison as would be produced by 2,000 Hiroshima-type bombs—a tremendous potential danger!
There have been a number of proposals for handling such wastes, including putting them on rockets and shooting them into the sun. However, this would be not only costly, but a tremendous risk as well. The wastes are far too dangerous to dump into the oceans. So there is now talk of concentrating them into solid form, and burying them deep in salt formations. Presently the Atomic Energy Commission is storing more than 80 million gallons of liquid wastes in metal underground tanks at various installations.
As more and more nuclear reactors begin to operate, the volume of deadly wastes will become stupendous. The prospect is frightening! Even Edward E. David, Jr., science adviser to President Nixon, acknowledged: “One has a queasy feeling about something that has to stay underground and be pretty well sealed off for 25,000 years before it’s harmless.”
There is also a quite different aspect of the waste problem—thermal or heat pollution. To cool its apparatus a nuclear power plant sucks tremendous amounts of cool water out of a nearby river or lake, and then pours the water back warm. Conventional power plants also do this, but nuclear plants release much more heat. Atomic Energy Commissioner Wilfred E. Johnson observed: “By 1990 more than half of all the river run-off in the United States would be required for cooling.” With what result?
By thus raising a river or lake’s temperature, the oxygen content of the water is reduced. Not only can this kill fish, but often it fosters the growth of algae, which, in the course of decaying, consumes even more oxygen. Soon the water begins to smell and taste bad. It is feared that with the increase of nuclear power plants the nation’s rivers and lakes will be ruined by thermal pollution.
A Risk to Health and Safety
It is obvious that nuclear power is not as safe as industry-promoted advertisements might lead persons to believe. In fact, the late Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black and his fellow Justice William Douglas called this means of power generation “the most awesome, the most deadly, the most dangerous process that man has ever conceived.”
Also, the well-known atomic scientist Edward Teller, rather than viewing nuclear power plants as friendly neighbors, observed: “A gentle seeping nuclear reactor can put its radioactive poison under a stable inversion layer and concentrate it into a few hundred square miles in a truly deadly fashion. This is why nuclear reactors do not belong on the earth.”
And yet many scientists believe that the poisons can be largely controlled, and so they feel that nuclear power plants are worth the risks. Fossil-fuel power generation, they point out, also has its risks to health and safety. For example, nuclear physicist Ralph E. Lapp noted the “decades of the coal era,” and deplored the “societal blindness that clawed 36 billion tons of coal from the earth, killing more than 100,000 miners, befouling the countryside and polluting our cities with lung-torturing fumes.”
It is true that millions have suffered respiratory ailments, and no doubt have had their lives shortened as a result of generating electricity with pollution-producing fossil fuels. On the other hand, nuclear power plants normally emit no visible or feelable pollutants. In fact, in small doses radiation is not observed to produce any ill effects. Yet years later those exposed to sufficient doses may develop deadly cancer. The hope is that the daily emissions from nuclear plants will not result in a future cancer plague, and that accidents will not cause more immediate calamities.
Thus while nuclear power is hailed by some as the answer to the power shortage, there are others who have serious reservations as to whether its use is worth the risks. But are there other alternatives? When fossil fuels run out, is it a matter of nuclear power or no power?
There are still rivers to dam to provide thus hydroelectric facilities. But in the United States, some believe, this power source has been exploited about as far as feasible. Also, the potential of geothermal energy—underground steam—is considered quite limited. But what about energy received from the sun? The possibility of utilizing solar energy to supply man’s power needs will be considered in a coming issue of this magazine.