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The Negative Effects Of Nuclear Energy Essay

, Research Paper

In 1950, the first commercial nuclear power

plants were constructed. The public was promised

a non-polluting and resourceful type of energy, but

how safe was, and is, nuclear energy? Although

there are less than 500 licensed nuclear power

plants in the world, many nuclear accidents have

already been endangering civilian lives. More

serious accidents are not just likely, but inevitable

(Fairchild 29). Nuclear energy may appear to be

the ideal source of energy for the future: however,

there are many negative effects of nuclear energy

that can lead to very dangerous situations.

Energy has always been among the basic human

concerns, along with food and shelter. It takes

part in all activities, from walking to the operation

of even the most complicated equipment. Mankind

has been faced with the challenge of meeting its

energy needs without risking human health and the


The many types of energy are mechanical, thermal,

chemical, electrical, radiant, and atomic (Microsoft

Encarta). In 1987, oil supplied 32% of the energy

worldwide. Coal was next in line with 26%, then

natural gas with 17%, biomass 15%, and nuclear

energy with only 4% (Galperin 19). With the main

sources of our energy running low, nations look to

new sources to provide our society with power.

Nuclear energy, the newest type of energy, was

researched to see if it would be the most

promising type of energy for the future.

Surprisingly, nuclear energy was discovered by

accident. In 1896, the French scientist, Antoine

Henri Becquerel, conducted an experiment with

uranium salts and found that these salts gave off

their own light when exposed to sunlight. Marie

and Pierre Curie were fascinated by the

possibilities of Becquerel?s rays. The Curies

discovered exactly what the rays were and then

named the phenomenon radioactivity (Halacy 6).

During World War II, many scientists from around

the world came to the United States to work on

nuclear reactors and weapons. With much

success, they continued after World War II and

concentrated more on nuclear energy. The

scientists instantly saw that nuclear energy would

be a great source of power because of the amount

of power it released. Splitting an amount of

uranium equal to one penny would produce as

much energy as seven and a half tons of coal

(Lilienthal 85).

A nuclear power plant is where energy is formed

when nuclear fission or fusion takes place. So far,

however, only the power of fission has been

controlled and used for energy. There are many

parts of the nuclear power plant, including the

reactor, generator, control room, cooling systems,

and the electrical, air, and water lines. The heart of

the nuclear power plant is its reactor core, which

contains a few hundred fuel assemblies. The

reactor core is encased in a pressured steel tank

with walls several inches thick. In most reactors,

this vessel is enclosed in a containment structure.

This is a steel-reinforced concrete dome that is

about three feet thick and serves as the outermost

barrier between the plant and the environment

around it. This helps prevent radiation from

escaping the plant (Galperin 42).

There are many different types of nuclear reactors,

but all the power plants in the United States and

more than three-quarters of those worldwide are

light-water reactors. There are two types of

light-water reactors, which are boiling-water and

pressurized-water reactors. Both types use

ordinary water as coolant and require enriched

uranium (Microsoft Encarta).

In boiling-water reactors, cooling water surrounds

fuel assemblies. The heat of nuclear fission makes

the water boil and the steam produced is carried

away from the core to the turbines. Once its work

is done, the steam is condensed to water and it

returns to the reactor (Galperin 44).

The pressurized-water reactor is more commonly

used than the boiling-water reactor. This reactor

seals the cooling water in a closed loop and adds

a heat-exchange system. Water in the reactor core

gets hot, but it does not turn to steam. The hot

water is piped through a steam generator and

converts a secondary water supply into steam to

power the turbine. The two water supplies do not

mix (Galperin 45).

A gas-cooled reactor is similar to a

pressurized-water reactor. The only main

difference is that helium or carbon dioxide gas

replaces the water in the primary loop. These

reactors cost more to operate and to build, but are

more energy efficient (Galperin 46).

The last main type of reactor is a breeder-reactor.

This is very different then other reactors because it

produces more fissionable material then it

consumes. A breeder reactor fuels with a

combination of plutonium and uranium. A breeder

reactor would be extremely useful if uranium was

scarce. It takes about 10 to 60 years to use up the

fuel from just one cycle (Galperin 46).

Radiation is very strong in the nuclear waste of

power plants. Nuclear waste exists in several

forms. One form is called high-level waste, and the

other is called low-level waste. High-level waste is

mostly from the used fuel rods and other materials

exposed to as much radiation as they are.

High-level wastes can let out very large amounts

of radiation for thousands of years. There is no

place to store this waste that is safe, and it will

always be radioactive. But for now, they are

stored in the ground. Other proposed storing

solutions are sending it to space, burying it in the

core of the earth, burying it in the ocean, or

burying it under the Antarctic ice. Even these ideas

have the potential of severely damaging the earth.

An example of low-level waste is the waste left in

the reactor water. This waste is less radioactive,

but is still very dangerous (Galperin 65).

Two engineers in Connecticut have, not too long

ago, caught the Nuclear Regulatory Commission

(NRC) in a dangerous game of disobeying the

rules. The NRC has been regularly disobeying

safety rules to let plants keep the cost down and

stay open to operate (Microsoft Encarta). Two

senior engineers started questioning after one of

them had checked the specifications of the cooling

system in a power plant.

After eighteen months of operation, a nuclear

power plant is temporarily shut down. They have

to get rid of the used fuel rods and replace them

with new ones. The old rods are very hot and

radioactive. Places to store the old fuel rods are

rather limited, especially since the federal

government has never designated an official

storage place for this high-level waste. So where

do you used fuel rods go?

Used fuel rods are kept at a fuel pool at the plant

until they can find a storage place for them. Fuel

pools were created to keep the fuel rods for short

periods of time. The fuel pool is not supposed to

be filled to capacity. This is only to be a last

resort. In the fuel pool, a cooling system cools the

used, hot, radioactive fuel rods. The more fuel

rods that are stored, the more heat. This, in turn,

causes more danger. If the cooling system fails, the

pool could boil, turning the plant into a lethal sauna

filled with radioactive steam (Microsoft Encarta).

George Galatis, an employee at Millstone-1

Nuclear Facility, had been checking specifications

and realized that the reports of safety in the fuel

pool had not been kept. He did some checking of

his own on this, and discovered that the plant had

been putting almost three times as many fuel rods

in the fuel pool as they were supposed to. He

wanted to report this to the NRC right away, but

he knew that some nuclear facilities, like this one,

was known to harass and even fire employees

who raised safety concerns. Therefore, he teamed

up with another employee at the plant, George

Betancourt, and brought the issue up to the

supervisors of the plant. They completely denied

the problem. Galatis and Betancourt then took the

problem to the NRC themselves and found that

the NRC had been ignoring the problem for over a


Nuclear facility scandals have not just been

happening recently. They have been going on since

the very beginning of nuclear energy. The nuclear

accident of Chelyabinsk-40 is one of the

earliest-known disasters. The Chelyabinsk-40

reactor was located near the Ural Mountains in the

city of Kyshtym, Russia. A tank holding

radioactive gases exploded, contaminating land

thousands of miles around the plant. Until 1988,

Russia officials dared to admit that this event even

took place. Many things are still unknown about

this disaster. What we do know, however, is that

the region around the reactor is sealed, and more

than 30 towns in the area around it have

disappeared from the Soviet map (Galperin 74).

In a town several miles north of Liverpool,

England, there was the nuclear repossessing plant

called Windscale. In 1957, the plant graphite

moderator overheated. The temperature indicators

did not recognize the problem in time, so a large

amount of radiation escaped, contaminating two

hundred miles of countryside. This accident is said

to have caused birth defects, cancer, and leukemia

in many people who were near the site (Schneider


In 1975, at Brown?s Ferry Nuclear Plant in

Decatur, Alabama, there was another nuclear

accident. A maintenance worker was checking air

leaks with a candle. This was against regulations

and caused the plant to catch on fire. A meltdown

was luckily prevented, but a worse disaster

certainly could have happened (Galperin 75).

The worst nuclear accident in the United States

occurred in 1979 at Three Mile Island. This

reactor was located in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

Many of these reactors had poor safety records

and an NRC inspector suggested that they be

evaluated. Despite this inspector?s suggestion,

nothing was done. During the cleaning of a sector

of the plant, one pump failed which caused the

temperatures to rise in the cooling circuit. The

safety devices had turned on and started to work

properly. However, after they cooled the circuit,

the safety devices never turned off. They

eventually used all the coolant and the

temperatures began to rise. A meltdown began

and citizens started evacuating. It is uncertain how

much radiation escaped into the air from it. The

plant then had to be cleaned up and sealed off.

Part of this process is still going on, and the

estimated cost upon completion is around two

billion dollars (Stephens 174).

The Chernobyl nuclear disaster in Russia was the

worst accident in nuclear history. It took three

days of meltdown for the nuclear plant officials to

even realize there was a problem. The problem

was discovered when technicians in countries

bordering Russia noticed high radiation levels and

decided it was coming from Chernobyl.

Explosions were shooting radiation into the air

because Chernobyl was not built with a

containment structure. The radiation was carried

great distances by the air currents. The radiation

that escaped into the atmosphere was more

radioactive than the atomic bombs dropped on

Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Fires also raged

throughout the complex, which made it hard to

control the situation. It was stated that five million

people were exposed to the radioactive fallout in

Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia. Predictions were

made that 40,000 cases of cancer are going to be

linked directly to the Chernobyl accident (Galperin


Chernobyl and other accidents help create a

growing resistance to nuclear energy. This is

because radiation sickness and other harmful

effects from over-exposure to radiation have

occurred. Every person in the world is exposed to

radiation. It comes from things such as potassium

in food, radon gases, and uranium decay. The

amount of radiation one is exposed to depends on

location, eating habits, as well as many other

things. Yet, too much radiation exposure is

definitely fatal.

How can nuclear power plants be trusted when

they are more concerned with saving money, then

protecting lives? They are violating safety

standards and the government is just watching

them do it. There are probably many other

violations that are taking place to let the plants

continue to operate and compete as a source of

power. If the NRC suddenly decided to enforce

all of its rules, then a majority of nuclear power

plants would have to be shut down. What do you

believe holds more importance: saving money, or

saving lives?

Nuclear energy displays both the brilliance of man

and the devastating destruction that mankind can

cause. The potential of nuclear energy has caused

great excitement. However, the destruction of

Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as well as the many

nuclear power plant accidents and the many

dangers of radioactivity, have given the world

reason to pause and consider the dangerous

possibilities of nuclear disaster.