A Nuclear Awakening


nuclear symbol
Photo by Nicolas Raymond, “Nuclear Burst Grunge Flag” via Flickr, Creative Commons Attribution.

Twenty eight years ago, the people of Chernobyl in the Ukraine woke to the sound of an explosion from a nearby nuclear power plant (“Sequence of Events”).  Seconds after 1:23 am, the No. 4 nuclear reactor in the plant had exploded, ignited by a sudden spike in power during a routine test of maintenance (“Sequence of Events”). It set off a release of radioactive materials that resulted in the deaths of 28 people within the year and ultimately caused the evacuation of more than 300,000 (“Health effects of the Chernobyl accident”). This is not the worst yet: the World Health Organization links the Chernobyl accident to thyroid cancers in up to 5000 people who were children at the time of the accident (“Health effects of the Chernobyl accident”).

Chernobyl happened a long time ago, and it is tempting to forget. In fact, in the early years of the 2000s, Americans did seem to be forgetting. A November 2013 CNN article titled “The ‘nuclear renaissance’: What went wrong?” details renewed public interest in nuclear power until the 2007-2009 recession, which led to a decreased demand for electricity and was followed by a boom in cheap fossil fuels. Then, of course, came the meltdown of the Daiichi reactor at the Fukushima plant in Japan, described in the article as a “body blow” to the American nuclear industry. But as major newspapers report every day on the urgency of climate change, it seems only a matter of time before nuclear power is on the table again. In the midst of our feverish concern over global warming, we would do well to keep in mind that nuclear power, too, comes with great risks and great costs.

Nuclear power is tempting because it seems to have evolved into a perfect energy source.  Unlike many other energy sources, nuclear energy does not release  greenhouse gases.  It’s also much more efficient than traditional fuel sources: the Nuclear Energy Institute reported in July 2014 that “One uranium fuel pellet creates as much energy as one ton of coal or 17,000 cubic feet of natural gas” (“Fact sheets”).

If it all sounds a little too good to be true–or at least too good to be economical–that’s because it is. Peter Bradford, a former member of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, said that using nuclear power as a solution to climate change is “like using caviar to solve world hunger” (Smith). Building a nuclear power plant costs billions (Smith), and building the safest nuclear power plants costs even more. Take for example the failure of the Pebble Bed Modular Reactor. Funded largely by the South African government,  the Pebble Bed Modular Reactor(PBMR) had a special core designed to prevent meltdowns and other mishaps.  An optimistically titled article in Science, “Nuclear Industry Dares to Dream of a New Dawn,” explains that the core of the PBMR was designed so that “a runaway nuclear reaction simply can’t happen”  (Clery).  David Nicholls, chief technology officer of the PBMR, described it as “ a walkaway reactor”, meaning that if something goes wrong, “you can come back in a few days to sort things out” (Clery).  Even better, the reactor was supposed to be small and efficient, easy to build and use (Clery).

Seconds before 1:23 am, the No.4 nuclear reactor in the plant had exploded.”

Apparently, though, it wasn’t easy enough.  The South African government stopped development of PBMR due to its  high predicted cost–more than $5 billion in American dollars–and a lack of potential customers (“South Africa Budgets for Nuclear”). Just like that, billions of dollars have gone down the drain.

And even if, somehow, we got the money to make nuclear power an economically viable reality worldwide, that still wouldn’t make it a good idea.  Would every reactor, no matter how sophisticated, function properly forever?  To believe this, we would have to assume that any newly-invented reactors originate from a perfect design, so flawless that they would not go wrong in any circumstance. Do we want to bet people’s lives and health and property–and their children’s lives and health and property–on that?

And so we return to that night in Chernobyl, that terrible global awakening. Maybe it’s time for us to be awakened to the dangers of nuclear power once again.

Works Cited

  1. Clery, D. “REACTORS: Nuclear Industry Dares to Dream of a New Dawn.”Science 309.5738 (2005): 1172-175. Web.
  2. “Health impacts of the Chernobyl accident: an overview.” Ionizing Radiation. World Health Organization, 2006. Web. 12 Aug. 2014.
  3. “Fact Sheets.” Nuclear Energy Institute. Nuclear Energy Institute, July 2014. Web. 02 Aug. 2014.
  4. “Sequence of Events.” World Nuclear Association, November 2009. Web. 12 August 2014.
  5. Smith, Matt. “The ‘nuclear renaissance’: What went wrong?”. CNN U.S. CNN 6 November 2013. Web. 5 August 2014.
  6. “South Africa Budgets for Nuclear.” Nuclear Power in South Africa. World Nuclear Association, May 2014. Web. 02 Aug. 2014.

 Molly Zhao is a Brevia staff writer.  She can be reached at mollyzhao@college.harvard.edu.