The Directions of Nuclear Energy

Since a nuclear reactor generated electrical energy for the first time on December 20th, 1951, it has seen varying support in public forums and has undergone ups and downs in terms of support, and of opposition [1]. Just a few years later the 1954 Amendments to the Atomic Energy Act greatly encouraged the development of the technology in the private sector. However, due to damning accidents at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, nuclear power suffered a great blow in public perception as people began to see it as a dangerous, horrific thing that could blow up in a mushroom cloud and wipe out millions. The harrowing tales of radiation poisoning caused the governments of many nations to bring their nuclear development to come to a screeching halt due to the outcries of the public.

Fast-forward to present day. While nuclear power for years had enjoyed peaceful development and prosperity by sliding outside of the public eye, its blossoming reputation came crashing down with the waves of the great Tsunami that struck Japan. On March 11, 2011, the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami caused a meltdown at the Fukushima I Nuclear Power Plant. The death toll resulting from the accident is reported to be 5: two of them got swept away in the Tsunami, 1 was trapped in the console of a crane in the earthquake, 1 man suffered from a heart attack, and another died months later in an unconfirmed radiation-related death [2]. To put this in perspective: 20,000 people died from the tsunami and earthquake, making the meltdown account for just 0.025% of the deaths on that tragic day.

Following the events of Fukushima, the Japanese government, under pressure from outraged masses, systematically shut down each and every one of their nuclear power plants. For the first time since 1970, Japan finds itself operating without any nuclear power – power which formerly provided approximately 30% of the nation’s electricity [3]. So where do the Japanese go from here? Where does the world go from here, with regards to nuclear energy?

Halfway around the world, Germany appears to have made up its mind. German voters chose to begin the shutting down of their nuclear power plants, formerly providing 23% of the nation’s power supply, by 2022 [4]. This shocking change is predicted to turn Germany from an energy exporter, into an importer. Their plans are to drastically increase the output of renewable energies, specifically solar despite Germany being a predominantly cloudy nation.

However, while some nations choose to relinquish their nuclear reliance in the wake of the stirring meltdown, nuclear programs are on the rise still in others. China currently operates 14 nuclear power reactors, along with 25 in construction and more being planned [5]. Even in America, which has been shaky about expansion since the traumatizing accident at Three Mile Island, now looks to advance its nuclear program. Even after the Fukushima incident, President Obama publically defended America’s nuclear program; in fact, plans have been made to build 2 reactors in Georgia – the first nuclear reactors to be constructed in America since 1978 [6]. In addition, advancements in technology promise to yield even more growth in the nuclear sector. The Department of Energy has announced plans to provide $450 million towards the engineering and licensing of small modular reactors. These small reactors should have provide approximately 300 megawatts of electricity (roughly enough to power 200,000 homes in the U.S.) as compared to the 1,000 megawatt reactors being built in Georgia [7]. These smaller reactors would better accommodate areas with smaller electricity needs, as well as be part of a flexible power production facility that could scale up quickly if needed.

While the future of nuclear power seems to currently be unclear, it is evident that nations are drawing a line in the sand; some have been scared into phasing nuclear power out completely, while others still seek to develop it as an integral part of their future energy production demands. Only time will tell which path will triumph.

References

[1] – Bain, Alastair S.; et al. (1997). Canada enters the nuclear age: a technical history of Atomic Energy of Canada. Magill-Queen’s University Press. p. ix. ISBN 0-7735-1601-8.

[2] – http://asiancorrespondent.com/53036/the-fukushima-death-toll/

[3] – http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=nuclear-free-japan-braces-for-sever

[4] – http://uk.reuters.com/article/2011/05/30/idINIndia-57371820110530

[5] – http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/inf63.html

[6] – http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/10/business/energy-environment/2-new-reactors-approved-in-georgia.html

[7] – http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=small-reactors-bid-to-revive-nuclear-power

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “The Directions of Nuclear Energy

  1. ghasemidoroh

    Thanks for such a nice topic.
    Personally I agree on developing nuclear for electricity generation but I have a concern as well.
    In my opinion, countries which have nuclear power, may work on having nuclear weapon as well. Even though it may not be publicly announced , but they do have !
    My idea might be funny. But I am thinking if a new world war happens, then nothing will be remained in earth ! If one country uses nuclear weapon, then the rest will use as well.
    I wish we can have a world without nuclear weapons.
    However having nuclear for generating electricity, should be developed between the countries. All countries should have electricty generated with nuclear for a cleaner future. However they should personally understand that they should not move toward nuclear weapons at all.

  2. It is worth noting that the Fukushima Daiichi plant was first commissioned about 41 years ago in 1971. The plant design has been upgraded since but it still has a basic design that is over 40 years old. The main concern with nuclear reactors gravitates around the cooling systems and backup cooling systems. The concept of smaller, modular nuclear reactors that you mention seems to be the new approach to nuclear power from a safety standpoint. Some of the trends with these new modular reactors are around passive cooling rather than actively cooling the reactor with water pumps and other devices. The passive cooling designs often include passive air cooling, gravity based water flow. Gravity is also used as a logic type switch that allows for the removal of failure prone valves from the system. It is interesting that you bring up the percentage of people harmed during the tsunami by the nuclear reactor at Fukushima. Over the course of nuclear power history there have been far less deaths and illnesses due to troubled reactors than there have in the coal and oil and gas industries. It is common place for death, dismemberment, and disfigurement to occur in mining, drilling, production and hydraulic fracturing operations. Nuclear just seems scarier with its national security implications. However, there are some nuclear technologies on the horizon that could actually be powered by materials that are not as weaponizable nor radioactive. In fact, some new technologies promise to be a means of properly disposing of current nuclear waste. New nuclear technologies are worth watching in the near future.

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