There have many, many diaries written on the subject of nuclear power and what is going on in Japan right now. The debate rages on this site and around the world about the safety of operating nuclear power plants. I would like to offer a little different twist to the dabate.
Nuclear needs to be looked at as a 3-legged stool with all three legs needing to be stable for nuclear power to be considered a viable option for our energy future. If any of the 3 are unstable then nuclear power use should not be expanded and existing plants should be decommissioned as quickly as feasible.
As I see it the 3 legs are:
1. The safe operation of all things nuclear ( not limited to power).
2. A solution to nuclear waste storage.
3. Closely related to number 2 but needing to be mentioned in its own right is the close relationship between the fuel cycle and the ability to produce weapons (either dirty bombs or the sophisticated ones).
I argue that none of the 3 legs can be considered stable. Let's briefly look at each.
1. Safe Operation of all things nuclear:
Here is the history excluding the current nuclear accident we are dealing with in Japan. That history is still being written.
List of civilian nuclear accidents involving fissile material.
In listing civilian nuclear accidents, the following criteria were followed:
1. There must be well-attested and substantial health damage, property damage or contamination.
2. The damage must be related directly to radioactive material, not merely (for example) at a nuclear power plant.
3. To qualify as "civilian", the nuclear operation/material must be principally for non-military purposes.
4. The event should involve fissile material or a reactor.
During the Number of Accidents
2000s 4 (Latest not included)
April 26, 1986: The world's worst nuclear accident occurred after an explosion and fire at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. It released radiation over much of Europe. Thirty-one people died in the immediate aftermath of the explosion. Hundreds of thousands of residents were moved from the area and a similar number are believed to have suffered from the effects of radiation exposure. http://www.atomicarchive.com/...
March 28, 1979: The accident at Three Mile Island nuclear power plant was the most serious in U.S. commercial nuclear power plant operating history, even though it led to no deaths or injuries to plant workers or members of the nearby community. In the months following the accident, although questions were raised about possible adverse effects from radiation on human, animal, and plant life in the TMI area, none could be directly correlated to the accident. http://www.nrc.gov/...
Conclusion: One unstable leg of the stool: Sixty years of operation and 24 civilian nuclear accidents. This does not qualify as safe in my book.
2. A solution to nuclear waste storage.
Types of waste:
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines six general categories of nuclear waste. These are:
1. Spent nuclear fuel from nuclear reactors.
2. High-level waste from spent nuclear fuel reprocessing.
3. Transuranic waste from defense programs. This consists of man-made elements heavier than uranium such as plutonium.
4. Uranium mill tailings from mining and milling of uranium ore.
5. Low-level waste.
6. Naturally occurring and accelerator-produced radioactive materials.
Currently in the United States, spent nuclear fuel is stored on-site at reactor facilities in steel-lined concrete basins filled with water. In 2002 Congress approved Yucca Mountain in Nevada as a long-term site to store nuclear waste. In 2009 the Obama administration terminated funding for Yucca Mountain citing environmental concerns.
To date there is no satisfactory solution to the problem of disposal of nuclear waste.
As the volume of waste increases around the world so do the security risks. Nuclear waste in the wrong hands can be reprocessed into weapons to make a true nuclear bomb or just be packaged with conventional explosives to create a so-called “dirty bomb”.
Conclusion: Leg two unstable: No solution to the long-term storage of nuclear waste. As evidenced by recent events in Japan short-term storage poses problems also.
3. Relationship of the fuel cycle to nuclear weapons production.
Today the benefits of hindsight show a long history of the symbiotic relationship between nuclear weapons and peaceful nuclear use. Take for example the cases of North Korea and Iran. An issue raised by both countries was whether they should be permitted to produce fissionable materials, namely, plutonium and enriched uranium. Both are fuels for reactors. Both are also the key materials for making nuclear weapons.
An excerpt from The Seventh Decade by Jonathan Schell. (Writer for the Nation, Harper's Magazine, The Atlantic Foreign Affairs and Tomdispatch.com, Also a visiting lecturer in international studies at Yale University where he teaches)
“Enriching uranium means increasing the proportion of the scarce, more easily fissionable isotope U-235 in natural uranium relative to the abundant and less easily fissioned isotope U-238. Plutonium, a man-made element, is created by bombarding the uranium isotope U-238 in a reactor and then chemically extracting it from spent fuel. The plutonium for a reactor requires no additional improvement to be used in a bomb. The uranium for a reactor, which needs to be enriched to a level of 3.5 to 5 percent U-235, on the other hand, must be further enriched to be used in a bomb, which generally requires a purity of 90 percent or more. However, the most difficult technical challenges in refining occur in the early stages, which are all that are needed for nuclear power. The further stages – the ones needed to make a bomb – are comparatively easy. The paths to nuclear power and to the bomb are therefore the same except for the last stages of producing plutonium and highly enriched, bomb-grade uranium, and throughout the nuclear age bomb programs have grown in tandem with nuclear power programs.”
Also from the same book and author:
North Korea conducted its first nuclear bomb test on October 9, 2006. Since that test the world has been tottering on the verge of what some experts term as a “cascade of proliferation”. Iran’s continued quest towards becoming a nuclear power has been well documented. Most agree it is not a matter of “if” but “when” they will have the bomb. If Iran was allowed to have the bomb odds are that other countries like Egypt, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia would quickly follow.
Today Japan, the only country to have experienced nuclear devastation, possesses more than two hundred tons of plutonium, enough for more than five thousand weapons. If Japan went nuclear many believe South Korea would quickly follow and perhaps Taiwan. Brazil and Argentina, both of which have so far jointly chosen not to make nuclear weapons, could reconsider their decisions. Both countries have extensive programs.
So the idea that we can spread the use of nuclear power and technology for peaceful purposes while stopping the proliferation of nuclear weapons is a myth. It is the nuclearization of the globe that is the problem and in the early part of the twenty-first century is accelerating across the board.
Conclusion: The 3rd leg of the stool is unstable.
Three unstable legs to this nuclear fission stool.
They say it's not over until the fat lady sings. For me the nuclear fission fat lady has sung. In my mind the debate is over. If it involves nuclear fission I'm against it. Whether it's weapons or power it doesn't matter to me. The final bar of this song has been written in my song book and the tone of it sings NO NUCLEAR Fission!