Ever since the bombs fell on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki the nuclear question has been a controversial topic for those in the west concerned with peace, the environment, energy production or the advancement of science. Nuclear science is a complex and multi-faceted discipline which has spurred on huge advancements in mankind’s understanding of the natural world from quantum examination of the sub atomic universe to space travel and comprehension of the origin of everything.
Periodically, safety alerts, ranging from minor near misses to accidents which leave in their wake a trail of devastation that can blight entire countries for generations have brought the safety of civilian nuclear installations into the public spotlight, none more so than in the case of Fukishiyma in Japan in 2011. For many, these problems (Earthquakes excepted, although planners should have foreseen the result of placing reactors on volatile fault lines) appear to be the result of not unimaginable human error, as the creators of Homer in ‘the Simpsons’ have observed.
Scotland has found itself at the forefront of the nuclear safety debate more than once recently, both in a civilian capacity with safety issues surrounding the removal of radioactive material from the Dounreay site as well as planning applications for new power stations having been lodged, and from a military perspective with radiation from WW2 warplanes having appeared on a beach in Fife.
With all the safety concerns and public controversy surrounding nuclear energy, why is the British Government still so keen to renew Britain’s ageing crop of power stations? Could they be a tool in the fight to reduce greenhouse gases or are the associated risks just too great?
Prior to the Second World War with Nazism and anti-semitism on the rise in Europe, many prominent nuclear and Quantum physicists sought refuge in the US. Fears grew that the Nazis were developing nuclear capabilities and a team of physicists, which included the eminent Albert Einstein, decided action needed to be taken to counter this threat. Funding was found to set up the Manhattan project which would eventually lead to the creation of the two atomic bombs which devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the conclusion of WW2.
The scientists in the Manhattan project expanded upon the work of Pre-war physicists such as J.J Thompson in the UK and the New Zealander Ernest Rutherford who had discovered much about the structure of the atom and radioactive decay. This work is seen as vitally important to our current understanding of the known universe. It has been observed by space physicists, such as those working at the CERN laboratory in Switzerland, that particles in stars behave in the same way as those produced by under laboratory conditions.
Following WW2 and expanding on the work of the Manhattan project, research was carried out into civilian uses of fission reactors to produce power.
So how does a nuclear fission reaction work? Simply put, when bombarded with radiation, in the form of sub atomic particles called neutrons, atoms can be caused to fracture with the release of large amounts of energy, plus the release of further neutrons from the fissile material (for example Uranium) leading to a chain reaction and the release of further energy. In a nuclear bomb, this reaction is allowed to build up to the point of explosion whereas in a fission reactor power station the reaction is moderated to allow the reaction to occur more slowly.
The energy released is then used to heat water and the resulting steam used to turn electricity generating turbines, in much the same way as conventional fossil fuel burning power stations.
The problems associated with nuclear power stations are mainly focused on the highly radioactive nature of the fuels used in the reactor and waste which is produced as a by- product of the fission reaction. If left uncontrolled, these highly volatile chemicals accumulate in farmland and watercourses, prior to being ingested by living organisms and entering the food chain.
Becoming exposed to high levels of radiation causes symptoms ranging from sunburn and minor sickness to baldness, a range of cancers, thyroid problems and in extreme cases, such as in Nagasaki, Hiroshima or Chernobyl, in death. Because particles can be dispersed in the air or water, farms, forests and natural ecosystems can remain degraded for generations, and control of health risks require major and concerted efforts from central government.
In recent years, because of the focus on climate change and fuel insecurity, governments and environmental groups have been exploring alternative fuel sources for energy generation than the traditional fossil fuel burning, carbon dioxide producing power stations which prevailed in the 20th century.
Much of the focus has been on so called ‘renewable’ energy generation in the form of wind, wave, tidal, hydro, geothermal and solar power. Arguments have raged between proponents of these technologies and (in general) climate change deniers about the sustainability of these technologies and the positive and negative effects of their interaction with the environment. A renewable energy generator is one in which no expendable fuel source, such as coal, gas or uranium is used during the generator’s operational phase. Renewable generators generally utilise energy from the natural environment, such as the wind, solar power or the tides.
In times of global fuel insecurity, and having learned from the many environmental and human disasters of recent decades, (Oil spills, the hole in the Ozone layer, Chernobyl, Fukishiyma, chemical smogs) many people are now demanding that their energy is clean, safe and sustainable, both ecologically and economically.
Because little CO2 is produced by nuclear power stations during their operational phase, some in the pro nuclear lobby including the British Government have espoused using nuclear power in order to reduce the country’s CO2 emissions. But on virtually every other measure, nuclear energy fails the sustainability test.
While renewables such as onshore and offshore wind turbines are not perfect, they do have several key advantages over nuclear. Environmentally, they cause minimal environmental disturbance during their operational life, and much of the criticism they receive is down to aesthetics. A famous case recently was that of billionaire windbag Donald Trump who claimed that the proposed site of an off-shore wind farm near his brand new multi-million pound golf course in Aberdeenshire would devastate the views and would be disastrous for tourism in the country as a whole. Why anyone would consult the Donald on matter of subjective beauty is beyond me- I mean come on man you’re a billionaire, invest in a hairstyle for pity’s sake.
While wind farms can simply be removed once they become obsolete and their old sites allowed to regenerate naturally, Nuclear power stations have a long lasting and large ecological footprint thousands, or in the case of one nuclear dump in the US millions of years into the future. This is because the highly radioactive waste must be stored safely and segregated to prevent contamination of the environment, surrounding farmlands and waterways. The cost of reprocessing and storing radioactive waste is one reason why Nuclear Power Stations have never been viewed as sound private investments without guarantees of large public subsidies to offset the cost of decommissioning and waste storage.
A recent example of this is at the Dounreay Fast Breeder Reactor site. Many years after the site stopped being operational, the decommissioning is still likely to cost hundreds of millions of pounds to complete, and could continue for decades. It was recently reported by the Nuclear Decommissioning authority that the cost of transporting fifty shipments of highly radioactive breeder material from the site in Caithness to Sellafield over the next few years for reprocessing would be around sixty million pounds!
Another gauge of how sustainable a power source is the safety of the interaction with its workforce and the public. If for example, bad weather, or in a volatile region, an earthquake were to damage an offshore wind turbine installation at worst there would be some minor damage to the immediate environment and perhaps damage to property, which while distressing could be easily and simply rectified. If, however, the same set of circumstances were to beset a nuclear installation, as was the case in Fukishima, it’s possible that vast tracts of farmland could become contaminated for generations, across continents; workers, their relatives and people living in the vicinity of the plant could die or contract various diseases as a result.
It is clear that while renewable sources such as hydro power, biofuels and tidal power have their own sustainability problems, there have been so many advances in simple technologies that can harness the clean, free energy source of the sun’s rays or the winds that blow that there is simply no need nor desire among the general public for the expansion of costly, unsafe and potentially environmentally devastating nuclear reactors, other than in a limited number of scientific installations for educational and research purposes.