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Nuclear Power - A Worrying History

Chernobyl reactor meltdown

Nuclear Power - A Chequered History

Nuclear Power is a very risky business, as is shown by the above photograph of the Chernobyl Nuclear reactor. Radiation is very dangerous and poses a very serious threat to the population if there are accidents. The Nuclear Power industry around the world has suffered a number of major disasters over the years and unfortunately radiation can very quickly spread in the air and in the sea making large areas uninhabitable and causing serious medical issues for hundreds of years into the future. Here we look at what electromagnetic radiation is and which types are dangerous, we also look at some of the disasters that have occurred in nuclear power stations and the serious consideration for the survival of life on the planet.

What are the Risks?

In article 112 we we looked at nuclear power and why there has been a serious nuclear incident in Japan. The danger from nuclear reactors is, of course, radiation which is made up of electromagnetic waves and neutrons (bits of shattered atoms) that shoot around at tremendous speeds colliding with things and doing rather a lot of damage.

Electromagnetic waves are bundles of electromagnetic energy that travel at the speed of light. We are constantly surrounded by electromagnetic radiation which we use for many purposes in our daily lives. The lifetime theoretical perambulations of Albert Einstein, uncle Tom Cobbly and all is just a little too much to cover in one Fixed Abode but all we need to know at the moment is that electromagnetic radiation comes in different forms according to how energetic it is. These forms are categorised as ionising and non ionising radiation.

Dangerous types of radiation

Ionising radiation is the dangerous stuff. Ionising radiation refers to radiation that has enough energy to detach electrons (and therefore damage or change) atoms it collides with. High frequency ultraviolet rays, x rays, alpha and beta particles and gamma rays are all ionising and dangerous in varying degrees. Lower frequency radiation such as visible light, infrared, microwaves, and radio waves are non ionising and are not dangerous. Microwaves are contentious but we'll look at those another time. Alpha particles are only dangerous when ingested, beta particles are considerably more dangerous whilest gamma rays are the nasty ones, they have a lot of energy and pass easily through most materials, they need lead or depleted uranium to stop them.

Dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of WWII clearly demonstrated the dangers of exposure to radiation and were followed by detailed health studies of survivors over many years. Contrary to popular belief no evidence of increased levels of birth defects were found. Radiation causes serious damage particularly to body tissue destroying or deforming living cells. Exposure to radiation can result in burns, DNA and gene damage and cell mutation. Radiation is particularly known to cause cancers, leukemia, lower IQs and mental retardation.

Containing the radiation produced during nuclear power generation and, possibly even more importantly, responsibly disposing of highly radioactive waste after use are at the centre of the debate for or against nuclear power. In the current Fukushima nuclear accident highly radioactive water has leaked into the sea and large volumes of lesser radioactive water is being pumped into the sea. Previous accidents have shown that radioactive particles released to the environment can travel around the world carried in the wind or on ocean currents.

A key factor in all this is that radioactive materials may take decades even centuries to lose their radioactivity. The half life (the time it takes for a substance to lose half its radioactivity) of Carbon 14 is 5,730 years. This is a very commonly occurring substance that is used for carbon dating.

In the words of Stephen Metruck, U.S. Adviser to the 55th Session
of the General Assembly of the United Nations "A nuclear accident anywhere is a nuclear accident everywhere."

Nuclear accidents

Nuclear power could be an excellent source of energy if we could guarantee total safety and find an effective way of disposing of the waste but once we add the human element we start to find problems. We all assume that such dangerous technology is being very carefully managed by governments who employ the best scientists, business people of the highest integrity and the most responsible construction companies to set up and operate nuclear industrial enterprise. But is this the case?

The dubious history of Windscale aka Calder Hall aka Sellafield

Let us look at some history.

The first commercial nuclear power station was Calder Hall in the North West of England (the opposite end of the country from London). Established in 1953 with the primary purpose of producing weapons grade Plutonium it was first connected to the national grid as a "secondary" purpose in 1956.

Calder Hall is part of a site orginally known as Windscale, a site with a very chequered history. It had its first serious accident in 1957 when a graphite core reactor set on fire releasing large amounts of radiation into the atmosphere. These days the site is known as Sellafield (it was changed in the 80's because it had such a bad name) and is used as a worldwide spent fuel reprocessing plant storing large quantities of very dangerous radioactive waste.

Categories of Nuclear Accidents

Nuclear mishaps are categorised on a scale of 1 to 7. Until now Chernobyl in 1986 was the only accident serious enough to earn the top ranking of 7 but now the current serious incident in Japan is also being classed as a category 7 and 100 times worse than was originally thought. Chernobyl would appear to have been far worse than Fukushima with a total meltdown and an exposed reactor core. The much discussed 1979 incident at 3 Mile Island, Middletown, Pennsylvania in America was a category 5 incident.

This provides some context to consider the history of the Sellafield site which has had 21 serious incidents over the years, 1 category 5, 5 category 4 and 15 category 3 incidents. Sellafield contains the two most hazardous industrial buildings in Western Europe. As a result of its activities the Irish Sea is classified as the most radioactive sea in the world and locals joke about how their fish and chips glow in the dark.

Dounreay Nuclear power station

Dounreay on the North Eastern tip of Scotland was established in 1955 and closed in 1994. It has an even more chequered career. Decommissioning of the site will cost billions of pounds and will take until 2036 and the site will be returned to a "brownfield" site by 2336 (yes 2336).

Rather than go into the history of these two infamous British nuclear plants (in a country most people would assume could be trusted to behave responsibly with such dangerous technology) I leave you to read the following websites where a history of secrecy, denials, deliberate irresponsibility and incompetence is revealed. See and

Of course we should always be skeptical of internet based information so I must return to my own experiences. In another life I worked for a company specialising in very difficult engineering repair work, we took on jobs no one else would touch with a barge pole such as damaged oil rigs, leaking oil tankers, collapsing sewers and cracked cooling towers.

Nuclear power station repairs

I particularly remember a job the company carried out repairing a leaking expansion joint in a 3 metre square concrete pipe in a nuclear power station. Highly radioactive water was leaking into the surrounding groundwater. The repair involved cutting out the flexible sealant in the joint and replacing it. We employed many, many contractors who would go into the pipe to work for 30 minutes at a time, by this time they had used up their lifetime's recommended maximum dose of radiation (we have to wonder how it was determined what such a dose would be?) and they would be paid off.

It was rather like going behind the scenes in Cecil B. DeMille's Ten Commandments, those wonderful Egyptian pyramids were really plywood and cardboard held together by nails and chewing gum.

The public image presented to the world of an industry of technological and construction perfection being administered by the very best minds the world has to offer is at odds with the more likely reality of politicians motivated by votes, construction companies motivated by profit, subcontractors more used to building public toilets and designs created in the minds of boffins with only a tenuous understanding of the practical realities and difficulties of engineering construction.

Cheap power is very tempting and here in Indonesia, the most volcanically active place on the world's surface, there is the potential to supply all the country's power needs using geothermal energy, no dirty coal, no dangerous radioactivity. In spite of this the government is considering nuclear power. Perhaps, in the light of the tragedy that is still unfolding in Japan, a rethink might be a good idea.

How many countries around the world have the skills, the professional expertise, the technological capability, the attention to detail, the corporate integrity and the unfailing compliance with rules and regulations needed to handle such a dangerous technology? Britain, Russia, America and now Japan have all suffered serious accidents.

Finally one of the fundamental arguments for nuclear power was that it is far cheaper than coal, this in fact has not proven to be the case, nuclear power has been found to be more expensive. Sadly vast amounts of money has been involved in building these plants and much larger amounts of money involved in decommissioning and attempting to clean up the mess afterwards. Perhaps if only a fraction of these expenditures had been invested in developing practical, free energy sources (such as geothermal or tidal currents) we could all have been enjoying clean, cheap, abundant energy by now and our environment would be in far better shape.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing isn't it?

Copyright © Phil Wilson April 2011
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