What is radiation? Why be concerned about the safety of nuclear power? For those of us in Southern California, after the closure of San Onofre Nuclear Power Station, have we nothing to worry about? Are our radioactive concerns over?
The radioactive dangers of nuclear power, unfortunately, are with us throughout the fuel cycle, from mining, refining, shipping, reacting in the plant itself, and handling the wastes for upwards of 10,000 years. We now have 65,000 tonnes of such wastes in temporary storage across the country, not to mention multiples of this in “low-level” radioactive waste. Then there’s the link between civil nuclear power programs and weapons, and terrorism.
At San Onofre, there are 1,400 tons of highly radioactive spent fuel, hundreds of thousands of spent fuel rods, most in water-filled cooling ponds (1,100 tons), that could potentially be affected by a Fukushima-style earthquake/tsunami, or attack and that are within 50 miles of nearly 9 million people. The pools were never designed for such concentrations and long-term storage; federal government plans for permanent solutions – notably Yucca Mountain – have been greatly delayed. The next step for the wastes is dry cask storage.
Radiation is expressed as subatomic particles traveling at or near the speed of light. That’s 186,000 miles per second. In a reactor, this thermal energy drives steam turbines. When humans are exposed to radiation, and if intense enough, it is an ionizing force that can penetrate deep in the body knocking electrons off particles and burning havoc. If the radiation penetrates sex cells, it can cause genetic abnormalities. Bodies fight back, often causing cancers in the process.
Small doses of radiation are natural. Radiation is measured in REMs, Roentgen Equivalent in Man… the smaller the dose the better. (Roentgen discovered the x-ray.) Small doses cause nausea and fatigue (50 REMs), and vomiting (70). Bigger doses cause hair loss, and hemorrhaging (100), and death within months (400) and death within hours or days (2,000). As an employee of New York Power Authority, I remember walking inside the Indian Point 3 nuclear reactor containment vessel years ago, standing casually at the rim of the pool of reactor tubes with my NRC badge measuring REMs.
Is nuclear power dangerous? Good question. Big accidents seem to happen every decade or so, looking back to Three Mile Island (1979), Chernobyl (1986), and Fukushima Daiichi (2011). They were the result of human error, lousy design, and massive natural events. In theory, nuclear reactions can be controlled and safe; in theory wastes can be stored safely too.
The Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, known commonly as “The Zone,” is a 30-kilometer radius from the nuclear plant. Evacuations were ordered, and the area placed under military control. Its borders were later expanded, now an area of 2,600 square kilometers. At Fukushima, there is a 20-kilometer exclusion zone. Imagine drawing such a zone around a nuclear plant near you, and removing all the people, businesses, schools… everything, for perhaps a century or more.
So this issue focuses on “the magnificent,” a series of projects that have caught my eye recently and that certainly challenge the need for an “all of the above” national energy strategy. This smattering of technologies, and the boundless ingenuity that they represent, buries the concept of taking life-threatening risks to generate power.
This EcoNet News issue features the magnificent… from airborne wind turbines, to net positive waste gasification, Elon Musk’s proposed Hyperloop, the net zero building movement, and the White House going solar once more. What a wonderful world, and one in which the perils of radiation need not be considered and weighed in statistical probabilities.