IsNuclear Energy Really Safe?
IsNuclear Energy Really Safe?
Formany decades, the debate concerning the short and long term effectsof the use of nuclear energy on human health and environment hascontinued to raise controversy. Whether nuclear energy use poses anymore risks to human health than other equally significant inventions,especially the use of coal and fossil fuels as alternative energysources, is a subject that has continuously been in the social domain(Ferguson, 2011). Especially important to this social concern is theresults of the twin bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan in1945 on the health of the hundreds of thousands of people who were inthe vicinity of the physical shockwaves, as well as the healthimplications of the millions of people within the spread range of theradiation, as well as the genetic effects of the radiation ondescendants of people who were affected (Lochbaum, 2014).
Atthe same time, nuclear energy has for several decades driven theindustrial performance of most leading economies, with many moreplants being installed in emerging economies (ForoNuclear, 2013).Several countries in the Euro region have shown a tendency to abandonthe use of nuclear power plants in favor of renewable energyalternatives. Thus, is electrical energy generated from nuclearfusion sociologically acceptable in this age?
Nuclearenergy is energy that is obtained from the combining (fusion) orsplitting (fission) of certain atoms of radioactive material underhigh pressure and in controlled conditions. The generation of nuclearelectric energy, the most popular use, results from heating waterinto steam which powers steam turbines that in turn generateelectricity. Currently, 13% of the total electric energy globallyresults from nuclear operated sources. More than 400 nuclear powerreactors in 31 countries are in existence. Initially, nuclear powerwas an overwhelmingly acceptable alternative to the contemporary coalbased alternative, which was dirty, bulky and a heavy pollutant.Nuclear energy was considered a clean and more efficient alternative(Lochbaum, 2014). As the decades advanced, however, the negative sideof the nuclear alternative began to become apparent, a process thathas continued to become clearer ever since.
Firstly,the production of nuclear energy raw materials, primarily high gradeUranium, has raised concerns about the environmental and healthimpacts of nuclear energy. To produce one kilogram of reactor gradeUranium 235, several tons of the ore have to be excavated andpurification done. This in itself has two impacts (ForoNuclear, 2013).The first one is the massive dereliction that results from mining,with huge gaping holes resulting from the activity. These activitiesdeplete the environment of its natural form and usability, as well aspose health hazards typically associated with derelictions, such asstagnant water. Secondly and more seriously, this activity leads toexposure to dangerous radiation the people living in the vicinity ofmining areas, as well as those physically handling the ore,especially where, as is often the case, proper neoprene protection isnot provided (Lochbaum, 2014).
Thispoint of view is usually countered, during public debate, by the factthat one kilo of uranium can provide as much electricity power as canbe generated from a thousand tones of coal. In addition, coal miningleads to more dereliction and results to more deaths annually thanall activities associated with Uranium mining and reactor operation.A sociological point of view is that the cumulative health incidencesassociated with nuclear power are fewer than those associated withcoal. But on the long term, the effects of using nuclear energy couldoutweigh those of coal energy (Lochbaum, 2014).
Oncethe uranium is fed into the reactors, there are other possiblenegative outcomes. One of these is accidents and explosions(Lochbaum, 2014). For instance, the inability of the reactor coolingsystems to contain the heat generated by the reactors resulted in theFukushima plant radioactive dome melt in Japan recently, leading tomany deaths, destruction of property worth billions of dollars,displacement of many thousands of people, and exposure to dangerouslevels of radiation of millions within the immediate vicinity of themeltdown and beyond (Lochbaum, 2014). Such issues have raisedsociological concerns within the people resident in the areas, aswell as local and international communities. For instance, the ThreeMile Island nuclear disaster led to massive demonstrations of peoplein various countries, with crowds as big as 120,000 gathering inGermany to protest against nuclear energy usage. The three mileincidence happened at a time when nuclear energy was unanimouslyconsidered safe and clean, and there were numerous government effortsto persuade the masses that the incident was isolated andcontainable, even amidst factual concerns of the health effects ofthose in the neighborhood (Ferguson, 2011).
Thus,the truth about nuclear energy’s safety rating was masked by thesociety’s greater need to obey the law and believe the authorities,even against pure, logical judgment. Also concealed from publicknowledge at the initial times of nuclear power use was the realitythat huge investments had been made into the industry by influentialpeople, most in governments (ForoNuclear, 2013).Therefore, the investments had to be safeguarded in the expense ofthe greater public good. At the same time, it was arguable that thenature and extent of casualties arising from the use of nuclearenergy was still relatively small, and the environmental impact ofits widespread adoption at the time not Cleary apparent. Thus, mostpeople were more willing to focus on the positive aspects of theenergy (such as efficiency, sustainability, and cleaniliness) than onthe negative effects, such as the radiation exposure in the event ofaccidents and mining processes, as well as on the disposal of thebillions of metric tones of waste that result from nuclear reactorsin the globe annually. Evidently, the later effects are less visibleto the average person, and therefore more vague and inconsequentialduring opinion making (Lochbaum, 2014).
Inthe recent times, however, more people have continued to acquireknowledge on the nature and long term effects of the use of nuclearpower. In the wake of the Chernobyl Nuclear Reactor accident, peoplein most nations voted against further use of nuclear energy,culminating in 1980s, in a much declined rate of adoption of newnuclear plants in most nations. The decades of 1980s and 1990s sawthe least development of newer reactors, with the two decadeswitnessing less than 20% of all installed capacity to date (Ferguson,2011). In 2012, the Fukushima Daichii incident in Japan brought a newwave into the public debated regarding the safety and future ofnuclear energy. In the aftermath of the Fukushima incidence, morethan 160,000 people were evacuated from the immediate vicinity of theplant, most of whom are still residing in temporary sheds in Japan.In addition, property worth billions of dollars was destroyed, theregion’s infrastructure tremendously affected, business lossesescalated, and lives lost. The area immediately surrounding theregion has been under quarantine for more than two years, and thegovernment reluctantly acknowledged that the water in the regionmight have taken dangerously high levels of radioactive runoff (ForoNuclear, 2013).The effects of radiation exposure, even in amounts internationallyconsidered safe for humans, has been the subjected of highsociological debate, with many experts stating that any level ofradiation higher than the cosmic free-drift naturally present in theatmosphere could have measurable long term effects such as cancel andgenetic mutations (Lochbaum, 2014). Thus, the public opinionregarding use of nuclear power has continuously shifted in favor ofalternative energy sources, even amidst government cover-ups andreluctance to admit the possible uncontainable effects of long termnuclear power usage. Opinion polls a year after the Fukushima Daichiiincidence showed that above 95% of respondents were against theerection of a new plant (Lochbaum, 2014).
Yet,a general feeling sympathetic of re-introduction of nuclear powerbuildup has been witnessed since year 2001, with governments andexperts stating that nuclear energy is essentially safe, cheap andsustainable. In support of this statement, several proponents ofnuclear power have demonstrated that nuclear energy has led to farlesser casualties in its time than coal energy, and just as much orsometimes lesser casualties than renewable energy sources (Lochbaum,2014). In addition, the cost per kilowatt hour of nuclear energy hascontinuously been reducing over the decades as newer, more efficient,technologies are applied to the mining, purification andtransportation of Uranium, and in the production of nuclear energy(Lochbaum, 2014). Thus, again, the public debate regarding nuclearpower alternative has been swayed. This has further been fueled bythe rapid depletion of oil and other fossil fuels, the world’slargest energy source today. In the sociological consideration, thebalance between safety of fossil fuels considering its depletion,against the potential risks of nuclear energy, considering its longersustainability and cleanliness, has continued to sway people frombeing opponents to being proponents or the other way round (ForoNuclear, 2013).
However,one truth that has continued to obscure the public opinion is thathealth concerns associated with exposure to ordinary levels ofreactor radiation, as well as the long term effects of exposure toescaping radiation during reactor accidents is not easy to quantize(Lochbaum, 2014). This benefit of doubt tilts the debated in favor ofproponents of nuclear energy, including most governments andinvestors. The severe effects that are associated with the very fewaccidents that have happened in the history of nuclear energy,however, sway the public opinion in favor of alternative energysources. Thus, the nuclear debate achieves more points of view in thesociological perspective every day (ForoNuclear, 2013).
Everyinvention in the energy sector ends up in the public domain, asenergy is essentially a public utility element. Like every otherinvention that is consumed by the public, therefore, energy is opento sociological control. The issue of nuclear power is one that hastremendously been shaped by human sociology, starting from thedecades of its proliferation under public support in the decades of50s and 60s, to the decades of doubt in the 1970s and 80s, to theyear of decline in the 90s, to the nuclear renaissance in the decadeof 2000- 2010, and ultimately to the current era of doublt after theFukushima incidence. Cumulatively, nuclear energy remains as clean,safe, or dangerous as it was in 1950. Yet, public opinion has cast itin different light through the decades. The future of the nuclearpower alternative is currently open to much debate and speculation.However, the nature of human interactions, and how their individualopinions shape their collective conviction, is the central definingfactor in determining whether people are more likely to decide infavor of or against it.
Fromthe above, it is clear that, the Three Mile Island nuclear disasterled to massive demonstrations of people in various countries, withcrowds as big as 120,000 gathering in Germany to protest againstnuclear energy usage. The three mile incidence happened at a timewhen nuclear energy was unanimously considered safe and clean, andthere were numerous government efforts to persuade the masses thatthe incident was isolated and containable, even amidst factualconcerns of the health effects of those in the neighborhood.Interestingly, it is not the more realistic and logical alternativeof judging the technology in respect to the availability ofalternative sources that will reign, but, more probably, thepersuading power of sources that the people consider moreknowledgeable, influential or otherwise more suitable that willdefine the public opinion regarding the subject.
Ferguson,C. (2011). NuclearEnergy: What Everyone Needs to Know.Oxford University Press
ForoNuclear (2013). Howdoes nuclear energy influence the environment?Available at
Lochbaum,D. (2014). Fukushima:The Story of a Nuclear Disaster.New Press