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Environmental Studies

Nuclear Power in America

Abstract

Background 

Current Issues

Citizen Science

References


Comments & questions to:
csikkink@macalester.edu



Nuclear Power in America

Background

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Nuclear power has numerous potentials and seemingly magic answer to some of our biggest questions. It is well-known that the American president does not see the American way of life as negotiable, then how can we produce the energy we “need” without producing more greenhouse gases? What do we do when fossil fuels start to run out? How can we get rid of dangerous, polluting coal plants? The answers: Nuclear energy gives off no greenhouse gases and produces tremendous amounts of power. The actual energy-process does not require fossil fuels. It is produced by mining uranium which can be done domestically. Nuclear plants could produce the power that is now created by coal plants, which would become unnecessary. Right now in America, the 104 licensed plants produce 788,528 million kWh (U.S. Census Bureau). That’s 19.9% of all our produced energy, and nuclear technology is being comprehensively researched and methods of production efficiency improved.  

History

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Perhaps the best way to predict the future is to look at what has happened in the past with an overview of major world nuclear disasters chronologically. Lee Davis’ list includes:
1957 Liverpool (Windscale),    England             plutonium plant contamination
1961 Idaho Falls, ID,              United States     nuclear reactor explosion
1969 Lucends Vad,                 Switzerland        underground reactor explosion
1971 Monticello, MN,              United States      nuclear reactor explosion
1979 Middletown, PA,             United States      nuclear power plant leak
1979 Erwin, TN,                     United States      nuclear fuel plant explosion
1979 Kasli (Kyshtym),            USSR                 nuclear waste dump explosion
1981 Tsuruga,                       Japan                 nuclear power plant leak
1986 Pripyat (Chernobyl),      USSR                 nuclear power plant explosion                                                                                         (Davis).

BBC continues the list, adding:
1993 Severesk, (Tomsk-7)    Russian Fed.    uranium tank explosion
1999 Tokaimura,                   Japan             reaction chain in fuel conversion plant
2004 Mihama                        Japan              pipe burst scalds employees to death
(BBC Staff).
As we can see, the possibility of meltdown (which causes reactor explosion) is a cause for concern as well as leaks, utility damage, contamination and explosions of waste and fuel. 

Who is Affected?

 In order to be thorough about analyzing impact on the public, I will use a categorization that Charles Perrow uses to denote strata of victims in the case of nuclear mishaps in his book Normal Accidents. 

First party: “the operators of the system…those actually running the system (nuclear plant operators, pilots, ship officers) [and] others in attendance on regular shifts, such as first-level supervisors, maintenance personnel...”(Perrow) and so on. These people, as a rule, would be supporters of nuclear technology because it is the source of their income. They work with it every day and feel that it is, if not totally safe, fairly low-risk.
Higher dependence on nuclear energy would mean higher expectations of their workplaces.

with more than 30 countries that jointly represent two-thirds of the world's population showing a sudden interest in nuclear power, the worry is that the industry will not be able cope with the new demands on labour and raw material. "For 20 years we've been asked to cut costs — we became a skinny cow. Today we're being told to transform overnight into a fat cow — to get moving and produce more," says Ludovic Devos of Areva. "The real question is what the pace of the renaissance is, and will the industry be able to keep up?" (Merali)

This is certainly a question that the American government and nuclear industry will have to take into consideration.

Second party: “those associated with the system as suppliers or users, but without influence over it. They are not innocent bystanders, because they are aware (or could be informed) about their exposure, even though such exposure may not be entirely voluntary” (Perrow). This includes American energy consumers, which is a large population of the public. In the short run, in any outcome of this controversy, the public will continually have to pay more for energy in the future. If coal-power stays, then potential new carbon taxes will drive costs up. If either nuclear or renewable energy production rises, the cost will also rise in order to pay for the changes that will need to take place including implementation of more renewable or nuclear production sites, although carbon taxes will not be an issue. 

Third party: “innocent bystanders [who] have no such involvement in the system” (Perrow). This includes those people who do not use energy or who produce energy through their own means. If nuclear power rises and more plants are built, more public communities will be situated near these plants and are in more danger of being affected by an accident. They will benefit from any progress that is made with regard to global climate change, but will also undergo any potential negative impacts of slightly-increased radiation from regular nuclear output/transportation as well as fatal or severe health impacts from any nuclear accidents that occur.

Fourth party

For the most part, victims of radiation and toxic chemicals. They are fetuses being carried at the time of exposure; the would-be children that damaged parents will not be able to conceive; stillborn or deformed children conceived after exposure; and all those people who will be contaminated in the future by residual substances, including those substances that will become concentrated as they move up the food chain. (Perrow) 

This is the most important group, and the most often forgotten. They are the most important because they will be the ones to really deal with the consequences of the choices that are made about energy production. Whether they inherit a nuclear society, a renewable society or a coal-powered, environmentally-altered society is dependent on the outcome of this controversy. Whatever society they inherit could also strongly influence the way they view energy consumption. If they come into a nuclear society, they will continue to expect high consumption of energy; if they inherit a society that relies heavily on renewable energy sources, it is likely that the attitude towards consumption of energy will change with a new encouragement towards its reduction, because renewable energy cannot produce the same kind of numbers that fossil-fuel and nuclear reaction can in terms of power.   

Last updated:  5/7/2007

 


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