Nuclear Energy is not only clean but it is also incredibly safe, despite what many less educated individuals might have you believe. In Australia there is strong opposition to Nuclear Energy in favor of coal fired powerplants which are not only the biggest contributer of carbon emissions but also carry a significantly higher death toll world wide than all the Nuclear Reactors to date.
Let’s start with the most commonly used argument against Nuclear Energy, the accident at Chernobyl in 1986. The accident at Chernobyl took place when the reactor was intentionally run outside of it’s safe operational parameters during an experiment to see how the system would cope during a cooling system failure. The test involved shutting down the water pumps responsible for cooling the reactor to see if the cooling system was capable of starting it’s self up again automatically. The system failed to restart and the graphite core of the Russian RBMK-1000 (reactor) caught fire causing the reactor to explode. Because Chernobyl did not have a containment vessel designed to prevent the escape of radioactive material in the event of an accident (a common safety device) radioactive particles were allowed to escape into the atmosphere.
Not only was such a dangerous test carried out with an unsafe reactor design but many of the technicians on duty were untrained workers from a local coal mine and the only trained technician got his experience installing small reactors on board Soviet submarines. It was a combination of bad reactor design, untrained technicians and dangerous conduct that ultimately lead to the disaster. Many experienced engineers would not so much as contemplate running such a dangerous experiment with the cooling system, a critical component for the RBMK Reactor.
Today’s modern reactors are designed very differently from the reactor that was operational at Chernobyl. Modern reactors are designed in a way that ensures a reaction cannot be sustained if things go beyond the designated parameters, safety is built into the fundamental design of modern reactors. This means that if all the workers in a modern Nuclear Power plant where to suddenly drop dead from a heart attack the worse case scenario is that the reactor might shut down and cause a blackout. No nuclear explosion, no “end-of-days” just a blackout and the expense of bringing the reactor back online. That’s the worse case scenario for a modern Nuclear Powerplant.
What about the alternative, coal fired power stations? For this I would like to quote Brian Dunning from Skeptoid.com
A report in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that some 50,000-100,000 Americans die each year from lung cancer caused by particulate air pollution, the biggest cause of which is coal-burning power plants in the midwest and east. Even taking the maximum predicted death toll from Chernobyl, we would need a Chernobyl-sized accident every three weeks to make nuclear power as deadly as coal and oil already is. Shall I repeat that? If the world was filled with Generation I reactors run by feuding coal miners, we would need a worst-case scenario every three weeks just to match the US death toll we’ve imposed upon ourselves by clinging to our current fossil fuel system.
So which is really looking better now, Coal or Nuclear?
Before you jump on the anti-nuclear bandwagon. Do some research and you will find the truth is very different from what the hippies would have you believe.
Dunning, Brian. “Rethinking Nuclear Power” Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, Inc., 18 Mar 2008. Web. 3 Jan 2010. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4092>
Sevior, Martin. “Nuclear Power: Cure or Curse.” Up Close Podcast. University of Melbourne., 1 Nov 2006. Web. 3 Jan 2010 <http://upclose.unimelb.edu.au/episode/35>