Back when the Chernobyl nuclear reactor in the Ukraine melted down, I was in grade school. That disaster absolutely fascinated me and I spent a bit of time researching nuclear power, drawing diagrams of reactor designs, and dreaming about being a nuclear scientist.
One thing that stuck with me about that disaster was the sheer power involved. I remember hearing about the roof of the reactor, a massive slab of concrete, having been blown off the building. From what I remember it was tossed many miles away, though I’m having trouble actually confirming that now. No doubt there was a lot of misreporting done at the time.
The reasons behind the meltdown at Chernobyl are still a point of contention ranging from operator error to design flaws in the reactor. Chances are it is more a combination of both. There’s a really detailed report about what happened here. Additional supporting material can be found on Wikipedia.
Today we have the disaster at the Fukushima power plants in Japan. Of course the primary difference from the get-go is that this situation was caused by a natural disaster rather than design flaws or operator error. Honestly, when you get hit with a massive earthquake immediately followed by a devastating tsunami, you’re pretty much starting at screwed.
From what I understand, there are 5 reactors at two plants that are listed as critical. In two instances, the containment structure has suffered an explosion. Whoa! An explosion? Yes, yes, calm down. It’s not a nuclear explosion as most people know it. Most people equate a nuclear explosion with images of mushroom clouds, thoughts of nuclear fallout, and radiation sickness. The explosion we’re talking about in this instance is a hydrogen explosion resulting from venting the inner containment chamber. Yes, it’s entirely possible that radiation was released, but nothing near the high dosages most people equate with a nuclear bomb.
And herein lies a major problem with nuclear power. Not many people understand it, and a large majority are afraid of the consequences. Yes, we have had a massive meltdown as is the case with Chernobyl. We’ve also had a partial meltdown as is the case with Three Mile Island. Currently, the disaster in Japan is closer to Three Mile Island than it is to Chernobyl. That, of course, is subject to change. It’s entirely possible that the reactor in Japan will go into a full core meltdown.
But if you look at the overall effects of nuclear power, I believe you can argue that it is cleaner and safer than many other types of power generation have been. Coal power massively pollutes the atmosphere and leaves behind some rather nasty byproducts that we just don’t have a method of dealing with. Oil and gas also cause pollution in both the atmosphere as well as the area surrounding where the oil and gas are mined. Water, wind, and sun power are, generally speaking, clean, but you have to have massive amounts of each to generate sufficient power.
Nuclear power has had such a negative stigma for such a long period of time that research dollars are not being spent on improving the technology. There are severe restrictions on what scientists can research with respect to nuclear power. As a result, we haven’t advanced very far as compared to other technologies. If we were to open up research we would be able to develop reactors that are significantly safer.
Unfortunately, I think this disaster will make things worse for the nuclear power industry. Despite the fact that this disaster wasn’t caused by design flaws, nor was there operator error, the population at large will question the validity of this technology they know nothing about. Personally, I believe we could make the earth a much cleaner, safer place to live if we were to switch to nuclear power and spend time and effort on making it safer and more efficient.
And finally, a brief note. I’m not a nuclear physicist or engineer, but I have done some background research. I strongly encourage you to do your own research if you’re in doubt about anything I’ve stated. And if I’m wrong about something, please, let me know! I’ll happily make edits to fix incorrect facts.