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How Safe Is Nuclear Energy?

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The world is in need of energy at any cost. Our momentous growth as a civilization deeply ingrained in technology demands more energy no matter how dangerous the mode of production is.

Thus, Japan, the land of earthquakes restarted one of the nuclear reactors that were shut down after the Fukushima accident, amidst public protest. Among the dozens of protestors was a former Prime Minister. After a two-year ban, the reactors are being revived to normal function following the implementation of upgraded safety requirements. Japan being located on the Ring of Fire, where earthquakes and volcanic disasters frequently occur, nuclear power plants can be extremely dangerous, as meltdowns are easily triggered by such natural disasters. Fukushima is just the recent past. If you go back in time, the death bell tolls by nuclear energy disasters could be not very much lesser than the number of smartphones today.

Nuclear-Energy--Radioactive-Sign-in-Red-Forest

Radioactive-Sign-in-Red-Forest [Pic: Wikipedia]

Do you know Red forest and how it got its name? Here is a hint. It is situated near the notorious Chernobyl power plant in Ukraine. When there was a steam explosion causing the power plant’s nuclear reactor to fire, it ended up bloody. The nearby pine tree forest of ten square km area dried up and looked ginger-brownish giving the forest the name Red Forest. Even now, the exclusion zone covering 2600 square kilometer area surrounding the power plant is restricted for entry as the radiation can be still hazardous, nearly thirty years after the cataclysmic incident. The radiation was 20 times stronger than that during the atomic bomb explosions in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

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The consequences of the accident are dreadful. Nearly 25,000 out of the 600,000 firefighters that carried out cleanup operations died due to the impact of the radiation, says government agencies. This is how tragic nuclear energy can become. Nuclear power plants still survive because it is considered to be one of the greenest forms of energy least affecting the environment, under normal conditions. But when anything unfortunate happens, it wipes off the nearby area and renders them sterile. And, it is not just Fukushima and Chernobyl, but the list is longer. Three Mile Island and Kyshtym, Windscale disasters are the few other in the awful history.

Three-mile-island nuclear power plant view

Three-mile-island nuclear power plant view [Pic: National Geographic]

So what happens in nuclear energy generation that makes it so dangerous? While generating nuclear energy, we deal with the unseen basic building block of the universe: atoms. Ultimately, what is required is a force to run the turbines which in turn produces electricity. In case of nuclear power plants, this force is steam, which is generated when the cooling agent is heated up by the nuclear fission process. To put in simpler terms, water is boiled with the nuclear energy to generate steam, which in turn rotates the turbine.

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So what becomes very crucial in the process is breaking up the atoms to produce the required nuclear fission. The nucleus of an atom has an enormous energy that is bound together by strong forces. Uranium is used as the fuel, which break its atoms to produce the fission reaction, causing further breakdown of atoms to form a chain reaction. The rest of the process is left with the cooling agent, which is water, steam and the turbine. Yet, horror can strike any time even after because the elements that are used in the process should be stored in safe places as they can remain potentially radioactive for thousands of years.

Abandoned-Village-near-Chernobyl

Abandoned-Village-near-Chernobyl [Pic: Wikipedia]

Observations for this process were first made by Enrico Fermi, an Italian physicist. When he and Leo Szilard a Hungarian physicist emigrated to the US, the first man-made reactor Chicago- Pile I was created, which was a part of the Manhattan Project- the project that made the first atom bombs in human history.

Another major concern is that Uranium and Plutonium, which are used as the nuclear fuels can also be used to make nuclear weapons. Hence, countries that have signed Non-Proliferation Treaty alone can import these elements, which creates tension between countries in international relations. Thus, nuclear elements even though adopted as a greener measure to generate energy can bring a lot more trouble than benefits.

Coming back to where it all began, it is the need of the hour that more energy is needed than ever before, and the demand will shoot up in future, for all good reasons. It is high time that we opt for green and safe energy. And there is hope that human innovation will make it very much possible.

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