Reaction to reactors

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Japan’s earthquake provides new fodder for the debate over nuclear power.

Ed Kapp
News Writer

While an 8.9 magnitude earthquake and catastrophic tsunami have already proven to be devastating to many areas of Japan, the perceived threat of an impending nuclear meltdown has many anxiously preparing for the worst. However, according to scientists, there may be little need to worry about such an event unfolding.

After news of the earthquake, and subsequent tsunami, broke around the world, many observers’ attention shifted towards Japan’s more than 50 nuclear reactors and the possibility that at least one of the plants might overheat.

A nuclear reactor core meltdown occurs when fuel rods, filled with uranium oxide ceramic pellets wrapped in zirconium cladding, in the reactor’s core overheat and begin to melt. From that point it is possible for the material to get so hot that it is capable of melting through its steel shell. From there, potentially burn through the floor of the reactor building.

Following the disasters, on March 11, the cooling systems of two reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi Number One nuclear power plant failed. This led many to believe a meltdown, not unlike Chernobyl, was imminent.

On Mar. 12, an explosion destroyed the complex that contained “Reactor One”. In an effort to cool the reactor, plant technicians had been venting steam from the plant. At press time, amidst rolling blackouts, plant technicians had begun injecting sea water into the second reactor and “venting” the hot cores into the atmosphere.

Japanese officials, along with most experts, have claimed that the radioactivity emitted from the venting process is not significant enough to cause harm to humans. Japanese authorities have since admitted that radiation levels near the damaged Fukushima plant, at one point, exceeded legal safety limits.

According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, the Japanese government had evacuated 170,000 citizens from within a 20 km radius of the initial explosion.

Fortunately for those in the affected area, the design of the Fukushima plant is well-equipped to deal with potential meltdowns – and the threat of leaked radiation.

“The good news is this system is robustly designed. The containment building is containing the radiation,” explained Glenn Sjoden, a nuclear engineering professor at Georgia Tech.

“Those containment buildings are going to contain the lion’s share of all of that radiation. There will be some small emissions but, at the site boundary, we’re talking low levels. Way lower than you’d routinely get at a medical exam or a CT exam.” 

Japan’s nuclear energy agency has declared a state of emergency at a second nuclear facility after excessive levels of radiation were recorded in a reactor in Onagawa. It has been reported that the cooling systems at all three reactors at the complex, which were automatically shut down after the earthquake and tsunami occurred, were once again functioning properly.

Although it appears that a potential crisis may have been averted, Japan’s recent nuclear plant problems have refueled the heated debate over nuclear energy.

Proponents of nuclear power have long argued that it is a sustainable energy source that reduces carbon emissions while producing virtually no air pollution, in stark contrast to fossil fuel.

Those who argue for nuclear energy have long done so, also, from an economic standpoint. Nuclear energy increases energy security by decreasing dependence on foreign oil and is additionally the only viable option for most Western nations to achieve energy independence.

In contrast, opponents of nuclear energy argue that nuclear power poses many threats to both people and the environment – including the damage done from uranium mining, processing and transport, the risk of nuclear weapons proliferation, and the problem of radioactive nuclear waste. Additionally, those who argue against nuclear energy contend that the elaborate reactors themselves are vulnerable to problems – as evidenced by the recent events in Japan.

Although the situation currently unfolding in Japan may not determine the fate of nuclear energy, it will certainly provide fodder for both sides of the argument in future debates.

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