Near the middle of August, a nuclear power plant operated by Kyushu Electric Power in the Japanese city of Sendai restarted its reactors to produce electricity once more for the country’s electrical grid. The move is significant because it is the first of 25 nuclear power plants in Japan to restart after applying to reopen since the 2011 explosion of the Fukushima Daiichi plant, the world’s most recent nuclear disaster.
There have understandably been some mixed reactions to the decision. Areas around the Fukushima Daiichi plant are still so heavily contaminated with radiation that there are many of the 160,000 people originally evacuated from the region who still cannot return. Related protests have occurred at both the residence of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and the Sendai power plant itself. To make matters worse, volcanic activity has been detected in a region 30 miles away from the Sendai plant, although plant officials note that plant modifications would allow it to withstand a major event.
So why is a country that is still suffering from a nuclear nightmare so willing to delve back into a form of electrical energy generation that many across the globe are quick to loathe? One of the big problems for Japan is the issue of energy security to provide the electricity needed to keep society moving in a developed country. 48 commercial nuclear reactors in the country were shuttered after the 2011 tragedy and new ones that reopen must meet exacting safety standards introduced by the Japanese government in June 2013 which set stringent guidelines for tsunami protection and emergency command centers set up to deal with any developing issues. The move away from nuclear power over the past few years has been tough on Japan, forcing them to increase carbon dioxide emissions and increase energy imports due to the country’s limited domestic resources. When a lot of people need access to clean energy quickly, the prospects of nuclear power make much more sense.
Few areas of science and technology have been both so universally loved and then feared as nuclear power has experienced over the course of its existence. Right on the heels of the end of World War II, the McMahon Act, passed in 1946, established the Atomic Energy Commission whose job it was to tap the seemingly limitless potential of atomic energy. Yet major nuclear disasters at Three Mile Island in 1979 and Chernobyl in 1986 flipped the narrative on nuclear power in just a few years’ time. To many, the chance of either of these events ever repeating themselves makes the discussion of increasing our society’s reliance on nuclear energy a complete non-starter.
We’re keen on covering a wide range of environmental issues here on IPWatchdog. Although we’ve noted some troubling inconsistencies with the current science behind climate change that has turned increasingly political, we’ve taken a good hard look at the current research and development in fields like solar energy collection, alternatively powered vehicles and even green aviation technologies to see the actual ways in which environmental issues are being addressed. With nuclear power returning to Japan a few short years after its own major nuclear event, we wanted to ponder the question of whether nuclear power could help wean us from fossil fuels more quickly than solar, wind or other forms of energy. If we want to stop using forms of energy that pump carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, don’t we deserve to give nuclear power some closer consideration?
One fact that might help ease any wary readers who feel that the U.S. shouldn’t tangle with the nuclear monster is that the country’s electrical grid continues to draw power from nuclear reactors. According to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, there are 99 nuclear power reactors licensed to operate in this country, the vast majority found in the eastern part of the United States. It might come as a surprise to some that Three Mile Island continues to produce power, up to 2,568 megawatts of thermal power (MWt) on a license extending to 2034. America actually produces nearly a third of the world’s total nuclear energy and in 2013, nearly one-fifth of our country’s energy profile was nuclear.
In the 1960s, nearly two decades after scientists at the University of Chicago were able to create the world’s first self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction, nuclear power plant production took off in the U.S. and by 1991, America was home to one-fourth of the world’s total number of nuclear power plants. In that year, nuclear energy supplied about 22 percent of the nation’s electricity. Although the development of new nuclear power plants has been very stagnant in America over the past few decades, the World Nuclear Association reports that at least a few new reactors could start supplying the electrical grid by 2020.
Much like electricity generating systems utilizing fossil fuels, nuclear power reactors use heat to turn water into steam which turns a generator to create the electricity that travels to our homes and places of work. The way that a nuclear reactor creates heat, however, isn’t through combustion but a process known as fission, where heat is generated by the energy created when many atoms are split in a chain reaction. Uranium is supplied to the reactor as a series of pellets, which contain about 3 percent uranium-235 encased in ceramic, made to form a fuel rod. Uranium is able to produce a great deal of energy through fission because it has a very heavy nucleus relative to most elements. The chain reaction starts when a loose neutron collides with a uranium nucleus, specifically U-235 which has 235 neutrons, and creates enough instability in the nucleus that it splits. Other forms of uranium, such as U-238 and U-233, are useful to certain aspects of the fission process but it is U-235 that provides the perfect conditions necessary for a chain reaction.
Nuclear reactors are typically built in one of two ways, either as a pressurized water reactor (PWR) or as a boiling water reactor (BWR). In BWR applications, a chain reaction within a reactor heats up water until it boils, producing the steam needed to turn a steam generator. With PWR, water is still heated but under pressurized conditions which prevent it from boiling. Heat is transferred from the primary water tank to a secondary water supply, generating the heat necessary to power the generator.
Perhaps the most amazing thing about nuclear energy, especially during times like now when sustainability in energy is of such huge concern, is how little uranium is needed to produce the same energy as massive amounts of coal or other fossil fuels. The fission of one gram of uranium in a day produces a similar amount of energy as a power plant that burns 300 tons of coal or 600 gallons of fuel oil in that same day. At the world’s current rate of consumption it’s believed that the world has enough uranium resources to keep nuclear power going for 200 years. Also, the uranium-235 fission process creates a great deal of plutonium-239 when a stray neutron hits the aforementioned uranium-238 isotope during a chain reaction, and this plutonium-239 can be used or further refined as fuel for another nuclear reactor. So the nuclear fission process creates fuel for future nuclear fission. The same could not be said of coal or natural gas.
Nuclear activity in this country has been pretty dormant but according to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, there are applications in for nearly 20 new nuclear reactors at locations around the country. In the next few weeks we’ll explore what we’ve learned from the mistakes of the past and how nuclear power can be implemented safely and appropriately to further reduce our reliance on fossil fuels and foreign energy supplies.