The nuclear explosions in Japan put the final nail in nuclear power's coffin1. In this two part series, Part I will discuss:
- Prior Nuclear Accidents and Contamination
- Radiation Health Effects
While Part II will discuss:
- Nuclear Power Plant Costs
- Aginging Nuclear Power Plants
- NIMBY Factor
The U.S. Government is actively looking into the safety of our existing nuclear power plants. Any new power plant design and construction will undergo heavy Government scrutiny before permits are issued. In addition, eight different non-profit clean energy organizations including Green Peace have just recently (2009) petitioned the U.S. Government to stop and abandon all nuclear power plants2.
Prior Nuclear Accidents and Contamination
There was some cause for concern in the U.S. that the easterly winds would carry the Fukushima nuclear dust to California. As of March 18th, traces of the radioactive dust have already reached California3.
China conducted its first A-bomb test explosion during 1968. Immediately after the announcement, researchers at GE's Nuclear Research Center (Pleasanton, CA), took daily swipes of the dust from the autos in the Center's parking lot and the results showed only background readings. Eight days later, they found that the A-bomb radioactive dust had reached 40-50,000 feet and was carried by the easterly jet stream to California. Radiation counting indicated about three-fold increase above background levels. Gamma spectrometric dust samples showed the various radioactive isotopes such as Plutonium, Americium, Europium, Cesium, etc. They concluded from the analysis that the Chinese A-bomb test was a "dirty" bomb.
Besides the recent Fukushima nuclear accidents, the 1980s witnessed a virtual worldwide collapse of orders for new nuclear power plants. The previous 10 years (1970-80) had been marked by frequent technical mishaps, series accidents, huge cost escalations, and a rapid decline in public acceptance of nuclear power. Since 1978, over 15 European nations have abandoned the use of nuclear energy. Austria (1978), Sweden (1980), and Italy (1987) voted to oppose or phase out nuclear while Ireland prevented a nuclear program there. Poland stopped the construction of a nuclear plant. Belgium, Netherlands, and Spain decided not to build new plants and intend to phase out nuclear power. Germany had agreed to shut down all nuclear power plants by 2020 while, in 2008, it was extended to 2022. Switzerland has had a moratorium on construction of nuclear power plants for 10 years4. Today, even France has switched to solar energy.
The reasons for the collapse of nuclear power systems include: safety problems, inability to dispose of nuclear waste, stratospheric plutonium contamination (global at 80,000 ft), and the potential uncontrolled proliferation of fissile materials in the hands of terrorists. In the late'80s and early 90s, Chernobyl, 3-Mile Island, Monju reactor, and Russia's Ural Mountain nuclear contaminations were reported4.
The accident in the Southern Urals in 1957 attracted the attention of the world community. The release of 50 million curies contaminated an area of between 400-900 sq. km. (250-563 sq. mi.) in the vicinity of Kyshtym, Chelyabinsh Oblast5,6. Due to the damage to the cooling system of a Ural storage container having highly radioactive wastes, slurries, and solid precipitates, it became superheated causing an explosion. This single explosion caused multiple explosions of other nearby containers spreading the radioactive contamination far and wide5.
In Finland, there are safety concerns about the Olkiluoto #3 nuclear power reactor (a PWR type) 7. The permit was granted by the Finnish Government in December 2000 with start-up scheduled for May 2009. This reactor was constructed under a tight schedule (2001-2009) with considerable cost pressure. Dr. Helmut Hirsch (Sustrian Federal Government) reviewed this nuclear power plant during construction. He noted several failures during the construction phase such as:
- Quality problems with all key components of the primary coolant circuit, reactor pressure vessel, pressurizer, steam generators and coolant pipes.
- Steel line of reactor containment was manufacture by an incompetent Polish machine yard. The steel liner was wavy and it was damaged during storage.
- Concrete base slab of the reactor is more porous that allowed. This can lead to long-term deterioration.
In response to failures to realize the required level of safety, Finnish authorities have, in many cases, loosened safety requirements. 7 Today, the construction is 3.5 years behind schedule and 50% over budget. Current start-up is now estimated to be 2013 which is 13 years after issuance of the permit to construct7.
For Chernobyl, the worst effects are still to come from the 1986 horrendous nuclear accident. Some 50 workers died fighting the fire and reactor meltdown. Over 335,000 residents were evacuated in Ukraine, Belarus and Russia over a three month period including the town of Pripyat. Within a few hours after the accident on April 26, radiation alarms sounded at the Forsmark Nuclear power Plant in Sweden, over 700 miles away from Chernobyl. Today, we know that about 77,000 square miles of land in Europe and the former Soviet Union has been contaminated with radioactive fallout8.
Radiation Health Effects
Nuclear power plants routinely and accidently release tritium (radioactive hydrogen) into the air as a gas or as radioactive water (triturated water). Routine releases of tritium or triturated water, pose a growing health and safety concern. Tritium can diffuse through the concrete "dome" of the (BWR) reactors. Exposure to tritium has been clinically proven to cause cancer, genetic mutations and birth defects in lab animals. Once tritium or the radioactive water is inhaled or swallowed, its radiation can bombard cells. When the radiation zaps a DNA molecule in a cell, it can cause a mutation. Radioactive water can also cause cell mutations9.
Irradiated or "spent" nuclear fuel rods discharged from commercial nuclear power plants are a million times more radioactive that when installed. Certain radioactive elements, e.g. plutonium, a toxic metal and bone-seeker, and xenon-133 (a gas), in "spent" fuel will remain hazardous to humans for thousands of years10. Releases of radioactive xenon-133 into the atmosphere converts to iodine-131 which can be taken up in the soil and crops that we eat and causes thyroid cancer.
A German Government sponsored study of childhood cancer living in the proximity of German nuclear power plants found that children <5 years of age and <5 km (<3.1 mi.) from the nuclear plant exhaust stacks had twice the risk for contracting leukemia as those living >5 km11. Children are ignored victims of the national radiation protection standards that fall short for those most vulnerable to the harmful effects of radiation.
The health problems due to Chernobyl continue to be very acute12. Over 237 workers developed acute radiation sickness. In addition, another 4,000 deaths are predicted8. In 1996, children living in Belarus, Ukraine, and Russia down-wind of the Chernobyl accident were shown to have thyroid and leukemia cancers which is 3-fold greater than normal. 13 One child (Nastya) who was three years old in Belarus at the time has been diagnosed with uterine and lung cancer14.
Bibliography -- Part 1
- Nuclear Crisis in Japan; www.nirs.org/fukushima
- "Safe, Clean Energy Advocates Reject Obama's Call for More Nuclear Power; www.nirs.org/press/01-30-2010
- NBC News, 17 March 2011
- "Solar-Hydrogen Economy - An Analysis", Reynolds, W.D. 2007; www.energypulse.net
- Kabakchi, S.A., Putilov, A.V., et al. "Data Analysis and Physicochemical Modeling of the Radiation Accident in the Southern Urals in 1957" see; www.fas.org/fews/russia/1995
- "Evidence on the Urals Incident", New Scientist, 54. Pg 692-ff (1958); Walker F.
"Urals Russian Incident", Critiacl Mass, 23. (49) PP 12-13, 1977; Medvedev, Zh.
"Facts behind the Soviet Union Nuclear Disaster", New Scientist, 73. Pg 761-ff (1977) and others
- "Safety Implications of Problems in Olkiluoto" 16 May 2007, Green Peace Report. See also: www.wikipedia.org/Olkiluoto-Nuclear-Power-Plant/
- Gorbachev, M. "Chernobyl 25 Years Later: Many Lessons Learned" Bulletin of the Atomic Scientist, 67. pp 77-80, 2011
- "Tritium from Nuclear Power Plants: It's Biological Hazards" see: www.nirs.org/radiation/tritium
- "Highly Radioactive Waste"; www.nirs.org/radwaste/
- "Childhood Leukemia and Cancers Near German Nuclear Reactors: Significance Context, and Ramifications of Recent Studies" Nussbaum, R. firstname.lastname@example.org See also: Int. J. Occup. Environ. Health 15. pp 318-323, 2009
- "The Chernobyl Catastrophe: Consequences on Human Health" Green Peace report April, 2006, ISBN 5-94442-0138-8 , pp 1-138.
- Bertell, R. "Avoidable Tradegy Chernobyl - A Critical Analysis" J. of Humanitarian Medicine, Vol II,(3) pp 21-28, Dec. 2002
- "End of a Nuclear Age" www.greenpeace.org/international/campaigns/nuclear