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Nuclear Energy: Is it worth it?
In an era of depleting natural resources and energy supplies, the world has finally begun to look to other sources to provide our booming population with its power needs. Candidates for the next main power source are mostly environmentally based, such as tidal, solar and wind power. Another prospective source comes from nuclear energy; strong and mighty. Nuclear energy, aside from being able to provide a large quantity of power for our disposal, is too unstable and harmful to be used with minimal damage to the environment and to the human race.
One of the most significant dangers to the environment, and to people, stems from the dilemma of how to dispose of the radioactive waste produced by the nuclear fuel cycle. As of now, no perfect form of dumping has been fool-proof and completely safe. In the past, nuclear waste was contained in underground storage tanks, cut off from the surface world. You know what they say: out of sight, out of mind. But that presented even more problems, like contamination of the soil and water through leakage and pollution to the environment. Radioactive refuse takes a long time to decay completely, sometimes over hundreds of thousands of years so just imagine the resulting poisoning that could occur over that long period of time.
But today, thankfully, most nuclear waste is now stored in dry, above ground storage systems where the contamination of ground water cannot occur. But leaking is still a problem with all the obvious complications. The fact still remains that from the moment that uranium is mined, refuse from the cycle is present and unable to disappear.
Even if the proposal is to use nuclear energy as an alternative to greenhouse gas producing power sources, it was still designed first and foremost as a weapon. That it remains, despite the best intentions and security. Hiroshima and Nagasaki are reminders of this incontrovertible fact; the targets for the WW II atomic bombing of Japan bear proof of the destructive force and might of the nuclear energy harnessed in those bombs. Buildings were toppled, landscapes laid bare and lives disintegrated in an instant. That is the legacy of nuclear energy and how it was used in war.
Nuclear power complexes are incredibly technologically sophisticated in order to prevent accidental malfunction or outside intervention. But will that always be enough? As more and more plants are built and used, a simple human error will arise. True, if we are cautious to a fault and paranoid in our attention, any disaster can be averted. But time and time again, we fall into the pattern of believing that because nothing terrible has occurred, it simply won't come again. In that regard, complacency will be our one accident, our one mistake that could cost thousands their lives. Nuclear energy is chemically unstable to begin with, which is why it produces the desired amount of energy for use. However, it can never completely be harnessed or deemed completely safe.
So what happens when our attention or caution wanders for even an instant? Accidents, on part of the machinery or by our own hands, could unleash all the force of an atomic bomb on us and to everything surrounding the place of mishap. It's a lot like holding a grenade with the pin a bit loose so that you have to hold it down with all your might. You end up praying that your hand won't falter and that you will always be able to hold the pin down. Otherwise, you get to see a rerun of your life flashing before your eyes and the immense pleasure of being blown into tiny particles. The concept with nuclear energy is much the same. The containment and use of such a power is fraught with all the uncertainty and hazards described above, complete with all the complications of unleashing an atomic bomb. A pleasant prospect, certainly. The phrase that comes to mind is that of "sitting ducks."
In 1986, in a nuclear power complex called Chernobyl (in Ukraine), the staff at the power plant experienced a nuclear meltdown when performing a test to prevent disaster if the power supply was cut to the complex. The inside of the reactor, where uranium nuclear fission occurs, exploded and resulted in more detonations, fire and a cloud of highly radioactive fallout to the surrounding areas. The whole incident was estimated to have released more radiation than the atomic bombs used in Japan during WWII.
The aftermath was horrific. Surrounding lakes, rivers and reservoirs were contaminated beyond what was considered safe drinking water. Some animals nearby, domesticated and not, died or were unable to reproduce. Even swaths of forest turned ginger and died. Brave fighters who tried to contain the disaster died in flames or from complications of radiation exposure. For the doctors who treated people in the surrounding areas, the cases of several illnesses or complaints skyrocketed. These included many different kinds of cancer, hemorrhage and radiation sickness, along with other complications that could be attributed to radiation fallout.
Who is to say that this kind of catastrophe won't occur again?
Nuclear energy has more dilemmas and hazards than it solves when it comes to being an alternative to coal and fossil fuel-based power. Perhaps in the rush to secure another viable source of energy to feed a growing demand for it, we've forgotten that the answer isn't always "The more, the merrier." Conservation of energy, all energy is far more effective than a highly unstable and risky operation to secure the power of nuclear energy. It is long past time to stop and actually look at how much power we waste per day. When compared to what we could do with the surplus/wasted energy rather than spending it thoughtlessly, it's easy to see that we don't need to rely on a solution like the power procured from uranium nuclear fission to make steam that in turn makes electricity. Energy conservation is a far better answer; if only the world could see and accept that.
Leah Rensel is one of three north county high school students who won awards in the Snohomish County Public Utilities District No. 1 Essay, Art and Photo contest this spring. Along with Rensel, who was a junior at Arlington High School, two other essays were honored: Another junior at AHS, Sheree Nicole Goodey, and a ninth-grader at Marysville-Pilchuck High School, Sam Josephsen.