Nuclear Power - The Most Misunderstood Source of Energy

Nuclear power might very well be the most misunderstood source of energy used to generate electricity. Fear generated from incidents in Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, and Fukushima, paired with the frightening fact that the concept of using nuclear fission to create electricity originated from the Manhattan Project, has given many people the image that nuclear power is not a pathway to finding a more sustainable form of generating electricity, but a channel that can only lead to destruction. While there is danger inherent in the use of nuclear power, there is some level of danger in almost all industries, something that is regulated by legislation and standardized practices.

Nuclear Power Plant Safety

In the 1970s, nuclear energy was rapidly growing and was projected to account for over 50 percent of the electrical energy needed in the United States by the Twenty-First Century. Unfortunately, the Three Mile Island Nuclear Disaster put a significant damper on this in 1979, and was followed by the even more-extreme Chernobyl Disaster seven years later. Despite this, nuclear power plants have not been wiped off the face of the Earth, and the United States remains as the world’s greatest producer of nuclear power, having it account for 19 percent of the nation’s total electrical output.

The usage of nuclear energy to generate electricity is a legacy of the Manhattan Project, just as is the entire United States Department of Energy. However, the accidents that caused the death of workers were not caused by an inherent destructive nature of nuclear technology; they came from the mismanagement of the workers and failures in the faulty equipment in the plant.

The events at Three Mile Island in 1979 occurred from either a mechanical or an electrical failure that prevented the main feedwater pumps from sending water to the steam generators to remove heat from the nuclear core, causing a shutdown of the turbine generator and later the reactor. The plant’s staff was unable to recognize the issue as it happened, leading to the disaster. In the next decade, the site of the Chernobyl nuclear reactors became an irradiated wasteland following the poorly conceived and executed testing of the reactor at low power, in which hot fuel particles reacted with water and caused a steam explosion. Much more recently, a major earthquake and the responding tsunami disabled the power supply and cooling of three Japanese nuclear reactors that were not suited for handling natural disasters, causing the Fukushima accident.

Three Mile Island Nuclear Disaster
Three Mile Island, Dauphin County, Pennsylvania

Legislation quickly followed the nuclear disaster at Three Mile Island by the United States government, and the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations was established to promote excellence in training, plant management, and operations, often by detailed examinations and evaluations of the power plants. This approach to solve issues through the proper training of personnel directly addressed the inability of the plant’s operators at Three Mile Island to understand the reactor’s condition. In addition, the United States established the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to formulate policies and regulations governing nuclear reactors and materials safety. Today, the work of these two organizations, in addition to the World Association of Nuclear Operators (WANO), maintains a high level of safety and stability in the 104 nuclear reactors in the United States.

Standards also help to maintain safety for both the workers and the equipment at nuclear power plants. Different guidelines encompass specifications for the variety of materials and systems that keep nuclear reactors functioning to prevent future accidents. ANSI has undergone a joint initiative with the National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST) called the Nuclear Energy Standards Coordination Collaborative (NESCC) to identify and respond to the current needs of the nuclear industry.

Examples of nuclear energy standards include:

However, while giving the nuclear energy strict regulations and guidelines in managing nuclear power plants helps to make the generation of power safe for personnel and the public accessing the electricity generated, there is still the issue of managing nuclear waste. It takes varying amounts of time for the different radioactive waste components to disintegrate; strontium-90 and cesium-137 have half-lives of about thirty years, and plutonium-239 has a half-life of 24,000 years. This makes it necessary to properly store this material. Unfortunately, this is challenging no matter what, since the plutonium waste taken from power plants now will exist until the year 50,000 AD.

Nuclear Waste Barrels
Radioactive waste, marked in accordance to ISO 21482:2007 - Ionizing Radiation Warning - Supplementary Symbol

Standards address guidelines for the proper methods of testing and managing radioactive waste resulting from nuclear power generation, in addition to guidelines for the decommissioning of nuclear facilities and the resulting waste. Some of these standards include:

Nuclear plant accidents have been disastrous, but they are in no way representative of the entire industry. If nuclear power plants are properly managed and operated, they can provide immense benefits to society. While nuclear is technically not a “clean” source of energy, it only emits any kind of greenhouse gas during the construction and demolition of the power plant. According to NASA’s Institute for Space Studies, nuclear power avoids 76,000 deaths annually from toxic air pollution. Additionally, at present consumption levels, the planet’s accessible uranium resources could keep nuclear reactors running for more than two hundred years
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