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On the 6th of August 1945, the world became aware of the power of nuclear reactions when the atomic bomb nicknamed “Little Boy” was dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, killing tens of thousands. Soon after the end of World War II, the US Atomic Energy Commission was created to help control atomic energy development and to foster the creation of peace-time uses for nuclear energy. In 1954, the first nuclear power plant was opened to create electricity for the city of Obninsk in the Soviet Union at the Institute of Physics and Power Engineering and was used as a prototype to future nuclear reactor designs. This showed the world’s top scientists and engineers that nuclear power could be used to provide energy to cities across the planet. By 2000, 438 nuclear power plants were operating worldwide, providing 16% of the planet’s electricity supply. However, this number has slowed dramatically. As of 2019, there are only 4 more power plants in total, raising the total to 442 nuclear reactors worldwide. This raises the question, why isn’t nuclear power still expanding at an exponential rate?
Much of this may be due to the high cost and potential dangers of the “futuristic” fuel source. All nuclear power plants produce waste; much of this waste is comprised of disposable objects such as protective suits, masks, filters, and tools that are considered “low-level waste” due to lower levels of radioactivity. These low-level materials are subject to special handling, storage, processing, and disposal regulations so they do not come into contact with the outside environment. High-level waste is created when irradiated (spent) nuclear fuels cannot be reused to create electricity. Even though they cannot provide energy to power plants, the wastes are still dangerous. Since the only way radioactive waste ends up being harmless is through decay which can take up to fifteen million years depending on the types of isotopes present, the waste must be stored and disposed of in such a way as to ensure adequate public protection for a very long time. Disposing of one cubic meter of high-level radioactive waste in the United Kingdom can cost anywhere from £67,000 to £201,000 or over 262,000 US dollars. Waste is made throughout the process to create nuclear energy, from the mining of uranium ore to create the reactors to the final disposal of both high and low-level waste products. Such resulting expenses could cause companies to become negligent and avoid the utilization of proper disposal techniques that are necessary to protect both mankind and the environment from nuclear disasters.
Perhaps the most well-known nuclear accident is the Chornobyl disaster of 1984 when a reactor core in the power plant was damaged, leading significant amounts of radioactive isotopes to be released. Due to this disaster and others such as the Three Mile Island accident of 1979 and the Fukushima Daiichi disaster of 2011 scientists have begun to understand why nuclear power may not be the fuel choice of the future after all. Social scientist Benjamin K. Sovacool reports that between 1952 to 2009, 99 nuclear power plant incidents were recorded worldwide, totaling 20.5 billion dollars of property damage. What defines an incident as an official disaster is if the incident results in 50,000 US dollars worth of damage or the loss of human life. Fifty-seven accidents of the 99 that fall under this criteria have occurred since the Chornobyl disaster. Companies did not learn and continue to make harmful, deadly mistakes that affect the human population.
The release of radioactive particles from such disasters can cause many dangerous side effects. One such direct example is Acute Radiation Syndrome (ARS), a fairly uncommon result of nuclear disasters that generally only affects those who are within extremely close proximity to disaster sites, such as the first responders to the Chornobyl Disaster. Symptoms of ARS include the destruction of bone marrow in the first (hematopoietic) stage; dehydration, vomiting, cramping, and electrolyte imbalance in the second (gastrointestinal) phase; and extreme confusion or nervousness, burning sensation, convulsions, and coma within the third and final cardiovascular stage. At any stage, Acute Radiation Syndrome can cause those affected to pass away. In the case of Chornobyl, 134 victims were diagnosed with ARS and they were all confirmed to be plant workers or first responders to the accident. When these disasters happen, however, they do not just affect first responders who have volunteered for dangerous situations, but also innocent citizens. In excess of five million people have been exposed to iodine and cesium isotopes due to the Chornobyl incident. Arguably, the most dangerous of these isotopes is Iodine-131. It can be inhaled or ingested after entering the food chain through groundwater, milk, and produce. This has led to heightened thyroid cancer rates in children, who are especially susceptible to radiation. Children living near Chornobyl have been found to have an increased risk factor of 2-5 per Gray(Gy) of exposure when the risk of developing thyroid cancer for the average child is less than one in 100,000. Nuclear power plant disasters also strike fear into the general population over concerns of birth defects and health problems. Approximately 150,000 elective abortions occurred worldwide because of concerns of their child being born with defects or disease.
Released radioactive particles from nuclear disasters don’t only cause human problems but also environmental problems for our Earth. Particles enter the food chain through absorption by fungi, plants, and insects where they are eaten by higher life forms such as voles. When voles are eaten by wolves and foxes, the contamination is spread all throughout the animal kingdom, damaging their DNA strands. These animal effects seem to be similar to both the Chornobyl and Fukushima disasters. Nonetheless, the biggest environmental issue of nuclear power is not an aftereffect but instead a precursor. Uranium first must be mined before being used in a power plant’s reactor. During the mining process, radioactive dust is stirred up and can travel in the wind across continents; to prevent this, water is used to keep the dust down. In 1995, the Olympic Dam mining project used only 15 megaliters daily to provide water not only to the mining project but also to a nearby township, Roxby Downs. In the current time, Olympic Dam Mine is the second-largest producer of uranium in the world and uses 35 million liters of Australia’s Great Artesian Basin’s water per day, making the mine the southern hemisphere’s largest industrial water user. Australia is already a dry country and therefore cannot afford to lose so much water. As an effect, Australia’s only permanent water sources, mound springs, are drying up and causing a negative effect to the continent’s fragile ecosystem.
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