Nuclear Power

By Arron Ellis
(May 2012)

Nuclear energy has a mixed reputation despite the fact that it is an efficient source of energy if utilized and controlled correctly. This reputation is built on disturbing events in the recent past as well as the fear and sense of risk those have engendered, as well as on the continuing problem of finding a permanent disposal method for radioactive nuclear waste. Chernobyl demonstrated the reality of nuclear meltdown to the world and Three Mile Island brought the possibility of nuclear disaster to the home front of the United States. More recent events at the Fukushima power plant in Japan make advocating for nuclear power even more difficult in the modern world. This reputation alone makes it difficult to argue for increasing the use of nuclear power as a source of energy for a highly populated area such as Schaumburg.

Nuclear power station in Byron, IL

It does not help that the threat of a nuclear meltdown has reached Illinois recently. Recently in the urban town of Byron, Illinois, the possibility of a nuclear meltdown became far too close. Early in January of 2012, a nuclear reactor at the Byron plant began to release radioactive gases into the environment due to an unstable core (Spotts, 2011). Luckily for those living near and around Byron, the crew at the plant worked feverishly to contain the core before any damage could be done. It is fascinating how unrecognized this event went in the public eye considering the amount of publicity and public concern there is linked to nuclear energy.

When considering the possible damage that nuclear plants could cause, we should recognize what is hazardous and what isn’t. For example, the so-called “pollution” coming out of the smokestacks at power plants is actually water vapor. This is actually a good thing, because water is vital to the process of cooling the plants core so it doesn’t experience a meltdown (Spotts, 2011). This process allows for millions of people to receive power on a daily basis.

Damage to the unit three reactor from explosions at the Fukushima nuclear complex, March 2011 (BBC News)

Two serious threats reside with nuclear plants; the first being the possibility of a nuclear meltdown. In such an event, like what happened at Chernobyl in the now modern state of Ukraine, the land becomes poisoned by radiation and cannot support cultivation. This is just the start of the issues a meltdown can bring. Take the recent events in Fukushima, Japan, for example. A major nuclear meltdown, the worst nuclear power plant disaster since Chernobyl in 1987, was caused by an earthquake and tsunami that knocked out the plant’s power supply and subsequently damaged the plant reactors and cooling systems. The nuclear radiation released from the plant affected not just the local people, plants, and animals, but also made its way into the ocean and traveled air currents, as well. The lessons from this widespread disaster are many:  that the radiation reached more life and in a wider geographic range than first imagined; that despite the initial blame on a natural disaster as the event’s trigger, the crisis was largely human-made due to improper safety and regulation procedures in the case of an earthquake; .

The second concern should be the byproduct of nuclear waste created in the process of obtaining nuclear energy. Once a nuclear core has run its cycle it is stored in a cask. These casks are typically stored on site and are virtually indestructible; this method is called dry storage. The other form of storage is wet storage: the process of cooling fuel rods at the plant itself in water pools that must be maintained constantly. While the vulnerability of wet storage tanks was vividly illustrated in the Fukushima disaster, a study in the early 1990s showed that flying an airplane into a dry storage cask would not even destroy one (Chapin, 2002). This was done prior to the events of 9/11, however; since then, we’ve seen a heightened sense of fear amongst Americans. The fear is that terrorist would be interested in stealing or blowing up casks on nuclear power plants. With no ability to open the casks, though, it would be pointless for a terrorist organization to steal one.

The nature of nuclear energy provides plenty of cause for concern. However, nuclear power is at present a significant source of electricity to the Village of Schaumburg, along with all municipalities in northeastern Iliinois. The problem exists with the small possibility of a nuclear meltdown happening in the presence of a large population. The amount of instability and thus risk associated with these plants are enough to justify not using it as a main source of power in any highly populated area heading into the future. Even though Schaumburg already uses nuclear as a main power source, it would be beneficial for safety reasons to promote moving nuclear energy as a backup source.

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