Our first experience with nuclear energy came on August 6, 1945 when the United States dropped an atomic bomb on the city of Hiroshima, Japan. Pictures of the blast showed an enormous white mushroom shaped cloud emitting from what had been a city of about 350,000 people. The bomb made a direct hit, instantly killing 80,000 men, women and children; and by the end of the year as many as 166,000 were dead from injuries and radiation poisoning. In addition, 77 % of the city was either destroyed or severely damaged by the blast. Three days later (because the Japanese military had not unconditionally surrendered to the United States) a plutonium bomb was dropped, this time on Nagasaki, Japan, a city of about 263,000 people. Even though poor visibility caused the bombers to miss the central city, as many as 80,000 people eventually died from the blast. The horror of these events was etched in our psyches. 70 years later, it is still difficult to accept the idea that this science could ever be used as a safe energy source.
After World War II ended, the “Cold War” became a new international obsession. In an effort to test the new technology and flex global muscles, the United States, China and Russia carried out 2,053 nuclear tests. These tests resulted in massive atmospheric radiation and the fear that Russia might drop “the bomb” on our doorsteps. Suddenly, fallout shelters and Civil Defense exercises became commonplace throughout the United States. The hysteria peaked in 1962 during the Cuban Missile Crises. Today, it seems like a distant memory, but at the time nuclear power appeared more like Armageddon than safe energy to light our homes.
The Hanford Site
In 1943, as part of the Manhattan Project, a 586-square mile area was established by the federal government to manufacture plutonium for use in nuclear weapons. Prior to its construction, the city of Hanford was depopulated. The Hanford Site is located in Benton County, Washington. Most of the land is barren desert, however, the Columbia River flows through the northern portion of the site, as well as along its southeastern border.
In 1983, the Columbia Generating Station was commissioned and is still a functioning nuclear power plant located on the site, along the banks of the Columbia River. While no environmental problems have been associated with the nuclear power plant, there has been a history of problems with nuclear waste from the plutonium production reactors. Back in the early 1940’s the containment of nuclear waste was theoretical. Therefore, while they did their best at containment, the efforts were inadequate and as a result, nuclear waste flowed down river and downwind of the facility.
At its peak, there were five large plutonium processing complexes, which produced plutonium for most of the more than 60,000 weapons in the U.S. nuclear arsenal. By 1987 the last of the plutonium production reactors was retired and most have been entombed, allowing the radioactive materials to decay. The surrounding structures have been removed and buried.
There have been numerous lawsuits against the federal government by those who have been physically harmed by toxic vapors emanating from the reactors. And in recent years there has been controversy over leaks from the containment facilities.
The saga of Hanford is a sad chapter in our history with nuclear energy and provides ammunition to those who oppose it, however, scientists have learned from past mistakes and none of the previous flaws in the design of nuclear power facilities would be carried forward in 21st century, fourth generation facilities.
Three Mile Island
On March 28, 1979, a pump in the Three Mile Island generator system failed, shutting down the reactor. Operators opened the valves, which released radioactive water from the reactor. Not a good idea! Then, the emergency core cooling system came on automatically. The operator turned it off. Also not a good idea. High levels of radiation were suddenly released inside the containment building. Three hours had elapsed before it was realized that radiation was being released and had penetrated to the outside.
Two weeks earlier (March 16, 1979) was the cinematic release of The China Syndrome! It speculated that if the core of a reactor melted down, it would burrow all the way to China. According to the movie, an area the size of Pennsylvania would be rendered uninhabitable. “We don’t want a nuclear wasteland whether it is from a bomb or from a nuclear power plant.”
Jane Fonda, May 1979: “If we continue to place our health and safety in the hands of utility executives whose main goal in life is to maximize profits, then we will see more Harrisburg’s; we will see more leaks and we will see an increase in the cancer epidemic that is already running rampant in this country.”
Ralph Nader, September 1979: “Stopping Atomic Energy is practicing patriotism; stopping atomic energy is fighting cancer; stopping atomic energy is fighting inflation; stopping atomic energy is saving this country.”
Chernobyl, Reactor Number Four
April 26, 1986: In response to a sudden and unexpected power surge, an emergency shutdown was attempted. Unfortunately, however, an exponentially larger power spike occurred which led to the rupture of a reactor vessel and a series of steam explosions. These events allowed the graphite moderator to be exposed to air and ignite. Since the nuclear reactor was without a containment building, the resulting fire caused plumes of radioactive fallout into the atmosphere. The radioactive plume covered an extensive area, causing the evacuation and resettlement of over 350,000 people. “At least 64 people died as a result of the accident and maybe up to four thousand will have shortened life spans from cancer as a result of the ensuing radiation exposure.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chernobyl_disaster.)
“Chernobyl, unlike reactors in the U.S., had no containment building. When the fire and explosion happened, there was nothing to contain it! In other words, the reactor was inherently an unsafe design. No Chernobyl style reactors were ever built in the west.” (Documentary: Pandora’s Promise)
Commissioned in 1971 and built in Japan on the coast of the Pacific Ocean, the power plant suffered crippling damage on March 11, 2011 when a magnitude 9.0 earthquake caused a Tsunami off the northeast coast of Japan. 46 foot waves disabled the emergency generators, which were needed to cool the reactors. The ensuing explosions spewed radiation over a large area. Two workers were killed in the disaster and hundreds of thousands were exposed to elevated radiation levels. Today, large areas around the plant are still desolate from radioactive contamination.
Atomic bombs; equipment malfunctions; human errors; faulty reactors and even 46 foot waves! One wonders, can this technology ever be made into a safe and reliable energy source? And we haven’t even touched on the proper disposal of nuclear waste or the possibility that terrorist could use spent nuclear fuel to make dirty bombs!
Real world incidents combined with pro-environmentalist/anti-nuclear demonstrations made nuclear power a toxic topic on Capitol Hill and several State capitols. For example: Scare tactics were used to sway public opinion against a new nuclear power plant in Shoreham on Long Island, New York. A newspaper advertisement produced by the oil delivery industry (Oil Heat Institute) stated the following: “Immediate death for 3000 people from radiation; Early death for another 30,000 from cancer caused by radiation; Property damage of $7 billion; genetic consequences affecting future generations for thousands of years.” (Documentary: Pandora’s Promise)
Shoreham was completed in 1984 and was ready for operations, but after Three Mile Island and then in 1986, Chernobyl. Its fate was in limbo until 1989. Public opinion had turned sour and amidst numerous protests it finally died. In a deal with the State of New York, Long Island Lighting Company was able to pass on to the residents of Long Island most of the $6 billion dollars that the plant cost to build. ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shoreham_Nuclear_Power_Plant.)
This was a facility that could have been of great benefit to the City of New York, and according to novelist Gwyneth Cravens, if Shoreham Nuclear Power Station had gone into operation as planned, it would have prevented the emission of an estimated three million tons of carbon dioxide per year. Today it is a huge mausoleum. Owned by the State, it sits vacant on 455 acres of prime Long Island real estate.
Scientists Develop the Perfect Nuclear Power Plant
All of the major Nuclear Power Plant accidents resulted from one cause: inadequate cooling. So back in the 1980’s it was decided that there had to be a better way to build nuclear power plants because of safety, waste and proliferation matters. And they had to consider construction costs.
Therefore, in 1980, the Advanced Reactor development team at Argonne National Laboratory was given the responsibility for developing a nuclear power plant that could withstand any type of accident. It was called the Integral Fast Reactor (IFR). Every part of the IFR was a component of a complete nuclear reactor system: not just the reactor itself, but also the facilities for treating the spent fuel and waste. Therefore, all of the components were an “integral” part of the same system.
By April 1986, they were able to test the new facility: They tested what would happen if all electric power were to shut down at the plant, which is what happened at Fukashima. They shut down the cooling system. Without any action by the operators, the reactor quietly, all by itself, shut itself down. No action was required by any of the safety systems. Then in the afternoon, they carried out the conditions that caused the meltdown of the reactor at Three Mile Island. They completely shut down the pumps, cutting it off from its steam system. Again, it automatically shut itself down. Finally, a system was designed not to overheat, not to melt-down, but simply to turn itself off!
The IFR could take the spent fuel, chop it up, and feed it back into the reactor, allowing the fuel to be used again and again… for as long as the plant continued to function. (Pandora’s Promise)
Even though the nuclear reactor functioned perfectly, in 1993 the program was canceled by President Clinton and the U.S. Congress, three years before completion.
A short history of Nuclear Power Plants
“As early as 1954 scientists had figured out how to harness the awesome power of the atom and transform it into electricity, which was used to successfully power the USS Nautilus, our first nuclear powered submarine. The first nuclear power plant in the United States was built in 1956 and was a large-scale replica of the one used in the Nautilus submarine. It was built outside of Pittsburgh and was considered to be a clean source of energy which was needed because of all the coal pollution in the city. Back then, it was assumed by the early scientists that nuclear (capable of providing unlimited energy) would ultimately become the primary source of electricity in the world.” (Pandora’s Promise)
But, let’s go back to the basics: They first had to build a safe, reliable reactor to split the atom in a controlled environment. It works kind of like this: “The reactor controls the rate at which nuclear reactions occur, keeping in mind that nuclear chain reactions release several million times more energy, per reaction, than any chemical reaction. Therefore, with uncontrolled nuclear reactions, you have an atomic bomb! However, when properly used, the reactor simply generates heat and the heat generates steam. Once you have steam, the power source then becomes the same as if it came from oil, gas, coal or any other fossil fuel. From the steam, you can generate electricity.” (Pandora’s Promise)
Breeder Reactors vs Light Water Reactors
The Breeder Reactor breeds plutonium and can recycle it over and over again. The Light Water Reactor is a much simpler and cheaper system, but it produces more waste.
Light water reactors were used in the Nautilus submarine, thereafter light water reactors were also used in commercial nuclear power plants. These simpler reactors were a stepping stone to the development of the Breeder Reactors, which were considered to be the real long term future for nuclear power.
In addition to the safety mechanisms inherent in the design of the reactor itself, precautions also had to be engineered around it. Multiple core cooling systems had to be added on to anticipate possible breakdowns of various kinds
The Problem of Nuclear Waste
“Waste is currently being placed in dry cast storage, located in the back of the power plants. It is no longer being buried into the ground. The advantage is that now waste can then be recycled by new generation power plants. It therefore becomes a renewable resource. Also, the U.S. Government has purchased 16,000 nuclear warheads from Russia and then recycled them as fuel. Currently, 10% of our electricity, about half of all nuclear energy comes from reprocessed Russian warheads”. (Pandora’s Promise)
Globally, “266,000 tons of spent uranium fuel were in temporary storage at the end of 2015, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna”. (Turner, Zeke, Wall Street Journal, 1/24/17 “A 100,000 Year Fix for Finland’s Nuclear Waste”) A recent Wall Street Journal article reported that the preferred method of permanently disposing of nuclear waste is to bury it deep in the earth, entombed in rock. However, many countries, including the United States have hit political roadblocks. It appears that every time a specially selected site is chosen, the locals simply refuse to allow toxic waste near their communities. Not so on an island off the Finnish coast. The locals have embraced the idea, enticed by over $17 million in annual real estate taxes, paid for by the nuclear industry. “The money has paid for a new library, a senior home, two-day care centers, hiking trails, a hockey rink, a Finnish baseball field, and renovations for local schools and a historical mansion owned by the municipality.” (Turner, Zeke, see the Wall Street Journal article above) In the United States, with over 650 million acres of federal land, it is hard to believe that an appropriate location can’t be found. The land could either be sold to the nuclear industry and then taxed, or leased. Either way, the revenue would certainly help reduce our federal deficit. If you consider new generation breeder reactors and the future development of proper high tech entombment facilities, the problem of nuclear waste is solvable.
Nuclear Energy for the Future
“When properly controlled in a nuclear power plant, one ton of uranium can produce more than 40 million kilowatt hours of electricity. This is equivalent to burning 16,000 tons of coal or 80,000 barrels of oil. By the way, one pound of uranium will make a ball that is only 1.3 inches in diameter, about the size of your fingertip. Finally, absolutely no carbon is released as a by-product of this process.” (Pandora’s Promise)
Today, the current generation breeder reactors are now third generation. The technology is much safer than previously used. The fourth-generation reactors, when available, will use the waste from the first three generation reactors as fuel. There are several new designs currently being developed that are more efficient, smaller and cheaper.