American Elephants

Some Nuclear Facts to Keep in Mind: by The Elephant's Child

It is natural for the media to try to dramatize their stories to provoke public interest.  Sometimes that tendency is a negative. Many people are frightened by nuclear energy, and media gasps of “meltdown,” are not helpful.

Even more unhelpful are the reactions of some of the more excitable members of Congress such as Edward Markey(D-MA) , a longtime opponent of nuclear energy, who compared the current situation to Chernobyl, but then he’s usually even more fearful about the potential global warming catastrophe that might raise global temperatures by a degree or two.  There are some frightening headlines like “Radioactive Releases in Japan Could Last Months.”

The Japanese have good reason to be worried about the safety of nuclear energy, and they have skilled engineers and trained experts dealing with the events in Japanese nuclear plants.  Here are some cold hard facts to keep in mind as you listen to media coverage:

  • The low levels of radiation currently being released will likely have no biological or environmental impact. Humans are constantly exposed to background radiation that likely exceeds that being released.
  • The Chernobyl disaster was caused by an inherent design problem and communist operator error that is not present at any of the nuclear plants in Japan.
  • There were no health impacts from any of the radiation exposure at Three Mile Island .
  • The Nuclear Regulatory Commission does not need to regulate more in response to this. It already regulates enough.
  • The plant in trouble in Japan is over 40 years old. Today’s designs are far more advanced.
  • No one has ever been injured, much less killed, as a result of commercial nuclear power in the U.S.

William Tucker, author of Terrestrial Energy explained in the Wall Street Journal:

Early speculation was that in a case like this the fuel might continue melting right through the steel and perhaps even through the concrete containment structure—the so-called China syndrome, where the fuel would melt all the way to China. But Three Mile Island proved this doesn’t happen. The melted fuel rods simply aren’t hot enough to melt steel or concrete.

The decay heat must still be absorbed, however, and as a last-ditch effort the emergency core cooling system can be activated to flood the entire containment structure with water. This will do considerable damage to the reactor but will prevent any further steam releases. The Japanese have now reportedly done this using seawater in at least two of the troubled reactors. These reactors will never be restarted.

None of this amounts to “another Chernobyl.” The Chernobyl reactor had two crucial design flaws. First, it used graphite (carbon) instead of water to “moderate” the neutrons, which makes possible the nuclear reaction. The graphite caught fire in April 1986 and burned for four days. Water does not catch fire.

Second, Chernobyl had no containment structure. When the graphite caught fire, it spouted a plume of radioactive smoke that spread across the globe. A containment structure would have both smothered the fire and contained the radioactivity.

So far the danger to the population in Japan from the damages nuclear reactors seems to be minimal.  People are all exposed to radiation in modern society with little consequence.  Recognize media dramatization for what it is, and search for information from responsible sources.  And you might remember that the USS Ronald Reagan, aiding in the rescue effort in Japan along with her strike force, is a nuclear aircraft carrier.


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