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The Science of Nuclear Energy
Nuclear energy represents the energy released during a chain reaction in a nuclear reactor. The process involved in this is called nuclear fission of nuclear fuel, usually uranium, in the reactor.
In power plants run using fossil fuel, coal, oil or natural gas is burned to produce heat. Heat is generated in a nuclear reaction however, by the splitting of atoms in a process called nuclear fission. The splitting of the nuclear fuel nuclei during nuclear fission releases a vast amount of heat energy along with nuclear radiation.
The Problem Areas
Although nuclear energy can produce sustainable and low pollution energy, it has some disadvantages. The following are some of the disadvantages commonly cited by environmentalists.
1. Radiation Accidents
The radioactive waste produced by nuclear power plants can be a great threat to the environment and to human life. The devastation of the Chernobyl, the worst nuclear waste disaster is a case in point.
Although there is widespread debate over the exact number of fatalities due to the Chernobyl disaster (1986), among various estimates, a book authored by the scientists A. Yablokov, biologist; A. Nesterenko, biologist and ecologist; and V. Nesterenko, physicist; and edited by J. Sherman, physician and toxicologist; estimates the death count at about 9,85,000 deaths, mainly due to cancer (K. Grossman, Global Research, 2013).
Since the plant was located next to the Pripyat river feeding into a very large reservoir system called the Dneiper reservoir system, the seeping of radioactivity into aquatic systems and into the food chain was devastating, such that 4 sq km of pine forest turned reddish brown and died, other than bio-accumulation of radioactivity in fish and then in the food chain – effects that are expected to reportedly last for about a 100 years since the accident.
The nuclear meltdown and radioactivity release at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan is another example. The safety precautions exercised by Japanese authorities in its wake led to 37 direct casualties.
However, an enormous amount of casualties occurred due to the indirect effects of radioactivity contamination – 1,656 deaths in Fukushima, 434 in Iwate and 879 in Miyagi (Japan Times, 2014). Even though very high standards of safety precautions can be maintained, anti-nuclear experts argue that the devastating environmental and health risks of nuclear safety are incredibly pertinent.
2. Radioactive Waste
Nuclear, or radioactive waste is the waste product of nuclear reactors, fuel processing plants, research facilities and hospitals, and is also produced when nuclear reactors and facilities are dismantled. Radioactive waste is differentiated into high-level and low-level radioactive waste.
While high-level waste is the spent fuel detached from nuclear reactors, low-level waste is generated from other scientific, industrial and commercial uses of radioactive materials (USNRC, 2015). India however, also includes a third category called intermediate-level radioactive waste, which require shielding for disposal but little or no heat protection.
Intermediate-level radioactive wastes are disposed in a similar manner to high-level radioactive waste and are concentrated and fixed in cement (M.V. Ramana, D.G. Thomas & S. Varghese, undated). These qualities are delineated according to the radioactive content present in the waste and its half-life i.e. the time consumed by the waste in losing half of its radioactivity.
One of the main factors slowing down the expansion of nuclear energy is radioactive waste. Experts argue that there are great problems with the storage and disposal of radioactive waste.
While the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) manages nuclear safety on the international arena, in India the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB) formulates policies and lays down safety standards concerning nuclear energy. The AERB exercises regulation by laying down guidelines and a licensing system based on stage-based evaluation.
India’s nuclear safety programme includes reactor design policies, radiation exposure targets, radioactive waste management, and preparedness for nuclear emergencies.
U.C. Mishra of the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) says that the leaning in thought in India towards radioactive wastes as regards the environment has been containment and concentration of radionuclides rather than their eventual dispersal in the environment (U.C. Mishra, BARC, 2011).
Environmentalists cite that one only needs to remember the Chernobyl, Fukushima and Three Mile Island disasters to understand the horrific impacts radiation discharges can have on the environment and health.
3. High Initial Capital Costs
A nuclear power station requires a huge amount of investment, and a massive capital outlay is required for constructing a nuclear power plant. For example, just setting up units 5 and 6 of the Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plant in Tamil Nadu, India involved a cost of about Rs 50,000 crore.
Even the costs of building parts of the power plant are high, with Russia building the reactors. The Russian government has pledged to lend India 4.2 billion USD to help in covering the construction costs for units 5 and 6 of the Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plant (PTI, 2017).
4. The Scarceness of Nuclear Fuel
Anti-nuclear experts say that sources of nuclear fuel such as uranium reserves are scarce and exist in very few countries across the globe. On top of this various permissions are required from international authorities to process the nuclear fuel and also to set up nuclear power plants.
5. The Finiteness of Nuclear Fuel
The finiteness of nuclear fuel in the form of uranium and its scarcity mean that nuclear power cannot be termed as a renewable source of energy. Also because of its slow decay and limited supply there is a debate over whether nuclear fuel really is a renewable resource.
6. Nuclear Weapons
Nuclear material used to produce nuclear power can also be used to produce nuclear weapons. The devastating effect of nuclear weapons was apparent in the US bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan during World War II.
Although the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) exists, countries such as India and Pakistan have tested nuclear weapons, while America and Russia have large arsenals of nuclear weapons, leading to a nuclear hegemony.
7. Effects of Radioactivity on Humans
Humanity’s first popular interaction with the harmful effects of radioactivity was in the after-effects of the nuclear bombardment of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan by the US in World War II. Many mutations and other heritable birth defects have been observed among many people exposed to nuclear radioactivity in these sites and in other sites where humans have been exposed to radioactivity across the world.
In the wrong hands nuclear radioactivity can be a severe threat to populations across the world, and stringent safeguards and precautions become necessary with nuclear material.
8. Eutrophication Harming Aquatic Life
Eutrophication is a process whereby lakes and other water bodies become extensively enriched due to run off from land of excessive nutrients. This can cause high growth among aquatic plants which results in a lack of oxygen in the water for aquatic organisms. Radioactive waste can accelerate this process.