Nuclear power plants comprise of the complex systems run by people and consequently are vulnerable to human errors. Accidents in these plants may happen as a result of natural disasters such as earthquakes, flooding, and fires. Accidents can also arise due to human errors such as lack of observing safety rules and improper maintenance. However, with over 16,000 of all reactor years’ operations in 33 countries, only 3 major accidents have occurred. Even with the imminent danger posed by nuclear power, the U.S government recently approved an $8 billion loan for building new power reactors. This fact is coupled with evidence collected during more than 6 decades indicating that nuclear energy provides an abundant and safe way of producing electricity. This paper, therefore, argues in favor of nuclear power where safety measures have always been adhered to.
In the early 1950’s, nuclear power was mainly used for military research. The effects of the cold war led to the acquisition of nuclear weapons. The increased use of nuclear power brought about concerns on safety and health effects in the event of accidents. However, modern nuclear plants have implemented high safety measures that seek to prevent intrinsic problems, misuse of nuclear energy as well as safeguarding acquisition of nuclear weapons (Davis, 49). The safety measures taken are, however, similar to any other industry where proper designing and planning of nuclear facilities is put in place.
According to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), radiation and radioactive materials are particularly useful in modern medicine, power generation, and agriculture. On the other hand, radioactive materials are hazardous to the health of public and workers. Although regulating safety is each country’s obligation, some of the risks associated with radiation go beyond national borders. This issue has therefore brought about international cooperation among countries investing in nuclear energy in the bid to promoting and enhancing safety. By far, this cooperation has helped control risks as well as respond to emergencies as witnessed in Fukushima.
Nuclear plants all over the world are highly guarded thus making them hard to penetrate. For example, in the U.S, where there are 62 nuclear plant sites, over 9000 highly trained security agents guard the facilities (Michael). Additionally, the nuclear sites have comprehensive surveillance and detection systems thus minimizing misuse of nuclear energy. This kind of security measure is strictly adhered to in the nuclear energy industry. Restricting unauthorized persons into the nuclear plants has gone a long way in ensuring that critical equipment is safeguarded. IAEA also notes that all “…nuclear sites ensure that there are various security checks such as physical patrols in and around the plants, employees background checks, monitoring of employees as well as having barriers to all critical areas” (14).
The independence and isolation of the power plants have ensured that attacks from outside are not carried out. The vital area in the power plants is only accessible by an authorized personnel who frequently undergoes drug testing and behavioral observation. Visitors are also a subject to scrutiny and are always escorted by the security personnel. Nuclear power plants are also constructed close to water bodies such as sea, lake or rivers. Water is mostly used in cooling the reactors and thus acts as a shield against radiation. Safety has also been observed while disposing of the used nuclear fuel. According to the IAEA standards, used nuclear fuel should be removed and stored safely underground for a period of 6 to 10 years. All plant sites are also constructed so as to withstand earthquakes and flooding.
A major contribution to nuclear energy safety is the ability of the nuclear plants to shut down automatically in case of an emergency. Nuclear plants possess two separate systems that ensure fast and effective shutting down whenever irregularities are detected. The first system involves rods that drop automatically, shutting down the chain reaction (Bruce, 50). The second safety measure incorporates injection of poison or liquids into the reactor thus stopping the reaction process. The ability of these two safety measures to work automatically even when there is power breakdown ensures that risks associated with nuclear power are mitigated.
Achieving nuclear safety has become a worldwide operation unlike in the early 1950’s when each country was responsible for its own. Collaboration in the nuclear industry begins with standardization in the nuclear plants designs. Although each country is responsible for licensing and regulating nuclear plants, the global body ensures that quality and safety is applied evenly. Human error has also been established to be the major cause of accidents in nuclear, medicine, and aviation industries. These errors originate from latent organizational weaknesses; the nuclear energy industry has established and adopted human practices and principles to be followed in the nuclear sites (Davis, 58). Owing to the fact that the Fukushima accident was attributed to weaknesses in the organization structure, the nuclear industry has therefore embarked in the standardization of maintenance and personnel training.
Avoiding future disasters has been a pivotal point in enhancing usage of nuclear power. More and more nuclear power sites continue to be built in the world and create the need to address severe disasters. Since nuclear reactor plants are subject to mechanical failure and wear and tear, the industry has embarked on the measures to mitigate severe accidents. Although nuclear power plants have the capability of shutting down automatically in the event of an accident, measures have been put to facilitate cooling after shutdown. This safety measure had not been implemented in the Fukushima plant where after the plant had shut down, flooding destroyed the back-up power generators (Bruce, 53). The introduction of severe accident mitigation guidelines provides a buffer layer for safety. Of importance is the construction of power back up sites on higher ground devoid of flooding. Additionally, the guidelines advocate for collaboration of the local and national government disaster management units.
Severe accidents management also puts into consideration evacuation of people in the event of a disaster. According to the research by the US NRC, the effects of a major disaster in a US reactor plant would lead to no immediate deaths (IAEA, 78). This research also noted that risks associated with fatal cancers would be even less than those associated with general cancer. The current safety measures, therefore, provide a proof that in case of emergencies the system would slow it down thus reducing the impact on the general public.
Over the years, there have been several accidents associated with nuclear power reactors. These include core melts that have resulted in fatalities of workers in the plants only. However, important is the fact that these accidents have not brought about environmental contamination. These accidents, however, provided a valuable lesson to this industry where the authorities have consolidated and improved safety beyond the plants. For example, seismic and scrams shutdowns have the ability to reduce heat emanating from radioactive decay to less than 0.2% after one week (IAEA, 34).
Cyber-attacks have been common in the recent past with hackers being able to intercept information as well as take command of controls in isolated locations. However, the computer systems that run nuclear power plants are often isolated from the internet as well as the internal systems. This safety feature protects the plant from the outside intrusion. Nuclear power plants also have strict guidelines on the usage of portable media such as laptops, thumb drives, and CDs. In case of a cyber-attack, the system is designed to automatically disconnect from the main grid.
This paper sought to find out the safety of nuclear power. Nuclear power discussions continue to be channeled on reducing global warming, but the merits attributed to it cannot be overemphasized. It is clear that nuclear power is safer as it emits low amounts of carbon dioxide. Additionally, a nuclear plant is able to produce more electrical power as compared to hydropower dams. Besides the risks associated with radioactive waste, the security measures put in place confirms that production of nuclear power can be an effective and abundant supply of energy.
The safety of nuclear power incorporates designing plants that are difficult to penetrate as well as that adhere to the set safety standards. Government regulation coupled with high security at the sites ensures that all radioactive materials are disposed safely. Misuse of nuclear power is also controlled and thus goes a long way in preventing unauthorized persons from accessing it. The collaboration of all nuclear energy leaders in the world has also brought about standardization of designs, safety measures, as well as disaster management. The IAEA, for example, has well-laid rules and practices that guarantee the safety of the workers as well as the general public. With viable lessons learned from the past concerning nuclear power accidents in Fukushima and Chernobyl, this industry has proved that besides the risks, nuclear power is a major contributor to economic growth. Finally, the ability to avoid cyberspace attacks guarantees the safety of nuclear power use.