The Atom and Electric Power


Even though the first energy from nuclear fission was for making war, scientists could easily see that the atom was a tremendous storehouse of energy that could be used for peaceful purposes. Starting in the 1950's, several nations began to use atomic power for supplying electricity, and the number of nuclear-powered electric plants throughout the world has grown dramatically. This enormous increase was a result of the development of nuclear reactors, which use the heat energy produced by controlled fission to generate steam. The steam in turn powers a generator, which produces electricity.

A major advantage of nuclear power plants over conventional power plants (coal or oil) is that they produce virtually no air pollution. There is no particulate matter and no oxides of sulfur produced. Another advantage is cost and reduced dependence upon foreign oil supplies.

However, there are certain disadvantages to nuclear power plants. For example, there's always the possibility of a major accident, which could release large amounts of radioactivity into the atmosphere. The accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in March 1979 was a near disaster for the Harrisburg Pennsylvania area. Even more noteworthy was the disaster at the Chernoble nuclear facility in the former Soviet Union. A release of radioactive material, including radioactive iodine, into the atmosphere may result in numerous cancer deaths (such as thyroid cancer, because iodine is taken up by the thyroid gland).

Another problem with nuclear power plants is that they generate tons of radioactive waste material each year. This material must be removed from each plant and stored in a safe place. Moving large amounts of radioactive waste on our interstate highways and through towns and cities is seen by some as an open invitation for disaster. What happens if a serious accident occurs with a truck carrying this radioactive waste? Also, the question of safe storage is an ongoing controversy. Putting these wastes in salt mines or deep wells is seen by some as simply sweeping the problem under the rug. Some scientists fear that over the years an earthquake could occur near a nuclear waste storage facility and release deadly radioactive material into the environment.

What is the life expectancy of known uranium reserves? What is the half-life of the various waste products? Where is the waste to be stored?


Copyright 1997 James R. Fromm (jfromm@3rd1000.com)