What’s Wrong with Nuclear Power?
THE world was stunned by the first announced release of atomic energy in the destructive blasts over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But as people gradually recovered from shock and horror, they were offered conscience-soothing assurances that atomic energy wasn’t all evil. It could also be controlled and guided into useful channels.
Early reports even stirred the hope that the energy produced by the fission of uranium might be the final solution to the energy problem. Although uranium was more expensive than coal or oil, it has a millionfold greater energy content, far overshadowing any other source of power that man had ever known. The cost of the fuel in atomic furnaces would be next to nothing. After the furnace was built and connected into the electric turbines, power costs would be practically nil!
Alas! This euphoric vision of free power faded away under a closer look. The first sobering realization was that less than one percent of the uranium (the U-235 isotope) is susceptible to the chain reaction. And to get it in high enough concentration to keep the nuclear fire burning, it has to be separated from its heavier isotope (U-238). This is a difficult and costly operation, and a fair fraction of the energy that is gained from the U-235 when it is burned has already been spent in separating it.
Then we learned about the neutrons, which propagate the reaction from the burning to the unburned fuel. They are not like the familiar flames that leap from coal to coal in a stove. In atomic fission, the neutrons spilling out of the splitting atoms leave the fuel, the reactor and everything in and around it dangerously radioactive. So the reacting system must all be enclosed inside thick shields and have mechanical devices to operate it by remote control. What goes on inside is more frightening than a fire, because the penetrating invisible rays can burn us fatally without our knowing it.
Furthermore, to control the burning is a touchy operation. A nuclear reactor is not a bomb, but if allowed to run wild it could conceivably melt its way through the protective walls and escape into the neighborhood with its deadly load of radioactive ashes. To avoid this, it takes intricate and expensive safeguards and constant skilled vigilance. Then, too, the uranium does not burn completely to ashes. As it is consumed, the fission residues begin to eat up more and more of the neutrons that the uranium produces, and this quenches the chain reaction. Long before it is used up, the fuel has to be taken out and replaced with fresh uranium-235.
Moreover, discarding the burned fuel is not as simple as scattering wood ashes in the garden. The nuclear ashes are tremendously radioactive, and have to be heavily shielded for a long time after they are taken out. Some of the more abundant radioelements in the products of fission last for centuries. There is far too much of it to dump into the sewers, or even into the ocean. Neither is it safe to bury where groundwater might reach it. Up till now, most of the radioactive waste has been kept in guarded storage, waiting for someone to figure out what to do with it.
Every one of these complications adds large costs, so that before any power is delivered to the electric grid most of the savings from the “free” fuel have been eaten up. In spite of these drawbacks, nuclear energy has been vigorously promoted, and it has come to be a part of the everyday energy supply in many countries.
Some economic analysts say that nuclear power is still not as cheap as power from coal or oil, and that it has gained its present foothold only by the help of government subsidies, which are not charged to the power companies. On the other hand, the utility company that supplies Chicago’s electricity has published cost figures to show that nuclear plants are saving millions of dollars for their customers. They already get 42 percent of their electricity from the atom, and plan to increase this to 65 percent by 1985. Nuclear power is important in the national economy of many countries.
Objections to Nuclear Power
The use of nuclear energy has been running into more and more opposition. The mounting piles of radioactive waste are a present cause for genuine concern; nobody wants the stuff stored near where he lives. Also, there is a nagging feeling that somehow a nuclear plant might explode and scatter its radioactivity over an area that could expose millions of people. No such explosion has ever occurred, but no one can guarantee absolutely that it will not.
Protest parades and court actions delay the construction of plants. Government agencies, to placate the protesters, put ever more stringent requirements on the approval of new plants.
The fears of a nuclear plant explosion were whipped up to a national frenzy during the recent mishap at a plant near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. The reactor got out of control when some valves and instruments used to control the cooling water in the core failed to perform. For several days it was nip and tuck whether the reactor might overheat and melt down, or whether hydrogen gas accumulating in the top of the vessel might blow it apart. The building enclosing the reactor was designed to contain the radioactive materials in either contingency. But if that, too, failed, one could imagine that thousands of people in the vicinity would die. Many residents chose not to trust the official assurances and moved out until the crisis was over.
In the end, the danger was averted with no worse injuries than exposures about like those received routinely in medical use of X rays, but the power plant was lost. It may cost as much to clean and repair it as to build a new one.
Although the danger was exaggerated in many press reports—one commentator said, “We almost lost Pennsylvania”—there is no doubt that the accident strengthened the hand of those who object to nuclear power. Emotion, more than reason, seems to incite the clamor to “shut down the nukes.” When the hazard is compared with others that are accepted as a matter of everyday life, it seems to shrink almost to nothing.
For instance, people continue to drive automobiles faster than the law allows, knowing that over 8,000 more people will die this year (in the U.S.) than if they observed the speed limit. Even worse, people keep on smoking cigarettes, urged on by ubiquitous advertising and supported by government subsidies, although 80,000 people will die of lung cancer this year as a consequence.
In contrast, not one person was killed or injured, even in the worst accident in the history of nuclear power. Yet there are those who demand that all nuclear plants be closed. Undoubtedly, the insidious nature of the potential injury from invisible radiations contributes to the emotional nature of the objections. Nevertheless, this feeling is a real factor to be reckoned with, and it will make the authorities slow down and impose more exacting safeguards. The result of all of this will be to make energy still more costly.
How Long Will the Uranium Last?
Another deterrent to the growth of nuclear power is the fact that the supply of uranium is not unlimited. If the projected doubling of present capacity by 1985 is realized, the U.S. will be running short before the year 2000.
However, there is a way of greatly extending the present supply. It is based on the fact that while uranium-235 is being used up, uranium-238 is being transmuted to plutonium. This can be separated chemically from the used fuel, and it makes an even better source of energy than the U-235. In reactors fueled by plutonium, it is possible to regenerate the fuel faster than it is used up, so that ultimately nearly all the uranium, rather than just a fraction of one percent, becomes available.
But there is a risk that hangs like an ominous cloud over all present and future programs. The same uranium that is used in power plants can be diverted to the manufacture of bombs. For this reason governments have maintained a tight monopoly on the plants that separate uranium-235, and keep a strict account of where the product goes. In spite of this, whenever this material is used in power reactors, it is possible to accumulate the plutonium, enough, in time, to build an atomic bomb. India did just this, to the consternation of the Canadians who helped them build their reactor. The problem will be even more acute if plutonium is supplied as fuel. For these reasons some political leaders oppose the development of the breeder reactor.
Many scientists have set their hope on another way of getting energy from the nucleus. This is based, not on the energy from fission of a heavy atom into two smaller ones, but on that from the fusion of the lightest element, hydrogen, into helium. This is the nuclear process that goes on in the sun. In contrast to the limited supply of uranium, and even the much greater supply of coal, the amount of hydrogen available is as vast as the oceans. If this could be accomplished, would it not solve man’s energy problem for all time?
An article on this subject will appear in a later issue of Awake!