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The Case For Nuclear Power

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The Case For Nuclear Power

After the March 11th earthquake in Japan and the subsequent failure of the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant, many people have again raised concerns about the safety of atomic energy. During the course of this post I will be explaining my view on nuclear power and providing facts regarding it's safety. The first and foremost thing that must be mentioned is that with all types of power there is some inherent risk. With coal you have the risk of pollution, steam explosions, trace amounts of radioactive elements and contamination. Natural Gas has the risk of exploding if it catches fire or is under to much or to little pressure. During the production of solar panels, cadmium and selenium are used which are toxic to humans.1
Nuclear power has extremely negative connotations after the 1986 Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station meltdown seeing as people take the worst case scenario and apply it to all other instances of that form of energy. But this is just not a fair assumption to make for a few reasons, first off, the Chernobyl Reactor had no containment building which was the first of many problems that day. The reason this is so important is because the moderator used in the reactor was graphite which is flammable when exposed to air and since there was nothing to contain it if the reactor were to be breached, the graphite moderators burst into flames.2
Secondly, a test was conducted at Chernobyl which literally caused it to blow up. They were testing a new backup system on a live reactor which has the huge possibility for error as shown. I cannot say with certainty that we will never run tests on live reactors but with the advances in technology and in monitoring systems it is unlikely that anything of that magnitude could or would happen again.
The next incident that is usually cited is Three Mile Island disaster of 1979. This incident to the onlooker may seem like a failure but in reality it was a success for a few reasons. First off it caused no deaths as well as changing our outlook on rapid emergency response and power regulations.3 Next off, the containment facility did it's job and the melted reactor stayed inside the vessel.4 It is true that some radioactive material escaped but as cited previously, no deaths were attributed to it. 

Nuclear Power v. Fossil Fuels
Unfortunately the death toll from Chernobyl was amazingly high and this terrible but when comparing we must look at the exact numbers. According to Greenpeace 60,000 people have died in Russia during the last 15 years which cancer levels still high.5 But in order to make a fair judgement we must also look at the death toll that the coal mining business causes per year. SO2 (Sulfur Dioxide) has caused 500,000 deaths and over 4 million new cases of lung illnesses per year.6 Also, according to my previous source, there are 4,000 new cases of pneumoconiosis (black lung) per year in the US alone. The amount of black lung cases in 15 years alone is equal to the number of people who have died in Russia and need I remind anyone of the harms done by drilling for oil? With oil we increase our dependence on other countries which (usually) have tyrannical dictators as well as damage our environment as shown by the BP oil crisis and the Exxon Valdez spill of 1989.
So now that we can see that nuclear power is not bad, although it does carry some risk, we must ask the next question which is: "Which type of reactor is best?"

Pebble Bed Reactors
Pebble Bed Reactors(PBRs) are a form of nuclear reactor that uses a pebble of graphite as moderator mixed in with enriched uranium or any other radioactive isotope. PBRs are cooled using helium. Since it is using helium as well as graphite the reactors can run at a higher temperature thus producing more energy as well as being more efficient.7 PBRs are safer because they do not need active cooling systems seeing as, if the containment building is purged of O2 (which it must be due to the graphite which I will note on later), then the helium will follow the laws of convection and circulation and just continue to cool the reactor. This is a plus because as you add more parts to a security system you increase the likelihood of failure whereas this is following physical laws and it literally cannot over heat. As mentioned above the pebbles are graphite and here you may be thinking, "Isn't graphite what was in the Chernobyl reactor?" The answer to this question is yes. But there are two key differences. First off, most if not all new reactors have a containment building to stop the spread of radioactive materials (Chernobyl did not) and secondly, the pebbles are coated with a flame retardant called Silicon Carbide which is used to stop fires. Steam explosions are also impossible simply because water is not being heated. 
"A pebble-bed reactor thus can have all of its supporting machinery fail, and the reactor will not crack, melt, explode or spew hazardous wastes. It simply goes up to a designed "idle" temperature, and stays there. In that state, the reactor vessel radiates heat, but the vessel and fuel spheres remain intact and undamaged. The machinery can be repaired or the fuel can be removed. These safety features were tested (and filmed) with the German AVR reactor."8
Regardless of which type of energy is used there will either a)be a risk or b)not create enough energy. But if one looks objectively at the facts regarding the modern nuclear power industry as well as does outside research one can safely conclude that nuclear power is the best choice.


Although this is a Russian power plant which doesn't have
the best track record I find this picture inspiring. 


1: Kelley, L. (2010, March 17). What to do About Solar Panel Toxicity - 1-800-Recycling. 1-800-Recycling.     
                  Retrieved April 12, 2011, from
2: Gill, K. (2011, March 12). Explainer: Nuclear Power, Meltdowns and Why Japan Is Not Chernobyl | 
                 The Moderate Voice. The Moderate Voice. Retrieved April 12, 2011, from 
3:NRC: Backgrounder on the Three Mile Island Accident. (n.d.). NRC: Home Page. Retrieved April 12, 2011, 
4:Black, R. (2011, March 12). BBC News - Uncertainty surrounds Japan's nuclear picture. BBC - Homepage
                  Retrieved April 12, 2011, from
5: Chernobyl death toll grossly underestimated | Greenpeace International . (2006, April 18).Inspiring action for a green and
                   peaceful future | Inspiring action for a green and peaceful future . Retrieved April 12, 2011, from 
6: Fossil Fuel Disasters. (n.d.).Abelard Public Education Site. Retrieved April 12, 2011,
7:Gale, R. P., & Baranov, A. (n.d.). The demise of the pebble bed modular reactor | Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.
                    It is 6 Minutes to Midnight | Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Retrieved April 12, 2011, from 
8:Pebble Bed Reactor - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. (n.d.).Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Retrieved April 13, 2011,  

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At May 10, 2011 at 4:50 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

What about clean green power? Solar, wind, thermo and more.

Why should the world turn to nuclear power when it could be targeted by terrorists?

What can go wrong will go wrong, it's only a matter of time.

Power sources come with risks, I say in the case of nuclear power that risk is far too high for the little gain that could be provided in a much more environmentally friendly way.

At May 10, 2011 at 4:49 PM , Blogger Peter said...

This is a fair question/argument. First off solar is unreliable and will not provide enough energy to fuel our growing world. Geothermal can only be used in certain places with high seismic activity thus limiting it's availability. Wind is also unreliable and again will not produce enough energy. I say we use hydroelectric and nuclear power.

Regarding the terrorist thing, with PBR's the pebbles have an extremely low amount of radioactive material (usually uranium) which emits alpha particles which cannot penetrate the skin thus even if they were strewn throughout a city the risk would be low. But I thank you for your argument. Do you have anything else?


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