Posts Tagged ‘Radiation’


One of the biggest debates that the entire world has gotten into is: ‘Should nuclear energy be used for power generation?’ People have diverse opinions. Some see nuclear power as an important technology that emits no carbon dioxide while producing huge amounts of reliable electricity. While others perceive it as an inherently dangerous technology that poses a threat to any community located near a nuclear power plant. In either case, today, nuclear power is a fact of life for many parts of the developed world.

The nuclear reactors are designed and built to the highest standards of the engineering profession. It has the perceived ability to handle nearly anything that nature or mankind can dish out. However, these perceptions of ultimate safety are left to questions and doubts after the recent Japan crisis.

To be a part of this debate, it is necessary to understand how this cycle actually works and what risks it may lead to for the entire humanity.

Nuclear meltdown occurs due to overheating of a nuclear reactor core, resulting in melting of the core and escape of radiation. In such a situation, huge amount of thermal energy and radiation are released because of an uncontrolled chain reaction in a nuclear power reactor. Nuclear meltdown, fallout or blasts further lead to a nuclear crisis.

What is Radiation?
Radiation may be defined as energy travelling through space or a medium. There are two distinct types of radiation; ionizing and non-ionizing. All forms of ionizing radiation have sufficient energy that may destabilize molecules within cells and lead to tissue damage. Alpha particles, beta particles, gamma rays, X-ray radiation and neutrons may all be accelerated to an energy high enough to ionize an atom. This ionization can result in an increased probability of cancer.

On the other hand, non-ionizing radiation is essential to life, but excessive exposures can cause tissue damage. Radio waves and visible light are the examples of non-ionizing radiation.

All radiations, when exposed to in an excess are bad. But actually, some types of radiations are unavoidable, like the cosmic one which originates from the stars. The Sun too, radiates cosmic energy produced by nuclear reactions on its surface, consisting of short wavelength emissions of electrons and neutrons.

The nuclear crisis and the radiation emitted by such a crisis is, however, hazardous as it even has the power to alter DNA in the cells of human and animal bodies. Particles, or energy waves originating from the radioactive source, can penetrate the body and damage vital cellular machinery. The greatest concern is when it damages DNA, preventing it from making new proteins to keep the cell alive. Worse yet, it may begin to copy itself abnormally turning the cell into a cancer cell. To sum up:

• Burns are the most immediate harmful effect as a lot of Kinetic Energy is released
• Permanent damage of tissues
• Sunburn, melanoma or different types of cancers are caused by overexposure to nuclear radiations
• It can permanently alter the gene structure and introduce hereditary problems
• Food, water and soil are exposed to radioactive contamination
• There is a subsequent effect on agriculture and food cultivation
• The surrounding environment gets damaged
• In the longer run, the ozone layer gets depleted
• Changes in the climate – Nuclear winter is a possible occurrence (This effect is caused by the absorption of sunlight when large amount of dust is injected into the atmosphere by the widespread burning of cities and petroleum stocks destroyed in a nuclear blast)

Before the 2011 Japan Nuclear Crisis, the world had faced two such nuclear disasters.
A partial meltdown had occurred in Pennsylvania, near Harrisburg, United States on March 28, 1979. It is called the Three Mile Island accident. The disaster began with failures in the non-nuclear secondary system, followed by a stuck-open pilot-operated relief valve (PORV) in the primary system, which allowed large amounts of nuclear reactor coolant to escape. The incident was rated a five on the seven-point International Nuclear Event Scale.
The worst was yet to follow on April 26, 1986 at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine. The Chernobyl disaster is the only nuclear disaster that has been ranked seventh on the scale. There was a sudden power output surge, and when an emergency shutdown was attempted, a more extreme point in power output occurred, which led to a reactor vessel burst and a series of explosions. This event exposed the graphite moderator of the reactor to air, causing it to ignite.

Japan is struggling with the triple whammy of an earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis. The later one is the outcome of the first two disasters. The two power plants at Fukushima – Daiichi and Daini were the victims.

Due to the powerful quake and tsunami, the nuclear reactor’s emergency cooling power system had failed at the Fukushima plant. Since then, efforts were made to cool the reactor by circulating water by steam power, instead of electricity. But an attempt to lower the temperature inside the vessel that houses the reactor did not work well. The plant had a partial nuclear meltdown, followed by the leak of radiation.

The Fukushima plant’s building was destroyed by a blast and around 170,000 people were evacuated from a 12-mile radius. Large scale efforts were made by the operators to keep the temperatures down in a series of nuclear plant reactors. But all were in vain, as a second hydrogen explosion occurred at the Fukushima plant. As if this were not enough, dangerous levels of radiation leaked and a fire rocked the plant after a third explosion took place.

Are we ready? All the countries of the world are struggling to find an answer to this question when Japan is still struggling to get out of the emergency.

We at India are power-starved, with an energy deficit of around 12%. Rapid establishment of nuclear plants to fuel the economic growth has already started. We currently have 22 plants across the country. And at least six more are on the way. India’s Tarapur has one reactor which is a boiling water reactor, the same kind used in Fukushima.

The Government is busy reviewing the safety norms but environmentalists, social activists and commentators remain unconvinced. The nuclear industry of India is wrapped up in secrecy and it does not share information about its inner working with the public. This creates doubts and questions over corruption and skimping of nuclear safety norms.
On the other hand, Indian engineers will take time to grasp new and unfamiliar technologies – a dangerous situation in case of a disaster. Study reports increase the tension as they have raised the uneasy issue that some nuclear plants are situated on seismic zones and near coastal areas, posing a high risk in the event of an earthquake or tsunami.

More than two years ago, the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) produced a 132-page document, which provides guidelines on how to deal with a nuclear emergency. The document talks of the need to have clearly defined evacuation plans for population living in close proximity to nuclear facilities, ensuring these communities are aware of the threats and that drills be held regularly. It mentions the need of trained staff and other necessities. But, one cannot be sure whether all these is simply on paper or on ground as well.
However, the nuclea establishment in India has assured that our systems are robust. In India, a nuclear plant cannot be built within a radius of 400 kilometers of a seismic zone. Also, diesel power backups for our nuclear power plants, particularly in tsunami prone areas, have been constructed at high altitudes to avoid flooding by tsunami. But, looking at Japan, maybe we need further reassurance.

India goes by the phrase, ‘everything will be alright on the night.’ It assumes that rule-bending fixing shall do and ‘we’ll manage.’ But it’s high time, this will no longer work.

The Japan crisis has sent shockwaves through nuclear planning agencies around the world. Policy makers are asking for reviews of safety regulations, public is expressing concern, and it appears likely that some of the planned construction will be curtailed.

But on the other hand, there are issues like climate change that are strongly supported by nuclear power generation. This has triggered a debate as to should this mode of energy generation be used in the future or not.

In an Australian book (2010), Why vs. Why: Nuclear Power, Barry Brook and Ian Lowe have very well debated this topic and articulated seven points for and against the use of nuclear power. Brook puts forward seven reasons why people should say “yes” to nuclear power.

• Because renewable energy and energy efficiency won’t solve the energy and climate crisis
• Because nuclear fuel is virtually unlimited and packs a huge energy punch
• Because new technology solves the ‘nuclear waste’ problem
• Because nuclear power is the safest energy option
• Because advanced nuclear power will strengthen global security
• Because nuclear power’s true costs are lower than either fossil fuels or renewable
• Because nuclear power can lead the ‘clean energy’ revolution

Lowe argues that there are seven reasons why people should say “no” to nuclear power.
• Because it is not a fast enough response to climate change
• Because it is too expensive
• Because the need for base load electricity is exaggerated
• Because the problem of waste remains unresolved
• Because it will increase the risk of nuclear war
• Because there are safety concerns
• Because there are better alternatives

In the end, many people remain torn on the subject of nuclear power. They can see the amazing possibilities and destructive capabilities of the technology. However, the Japan crisis should get people thinking about some important issues. If we want to use a powerful energy source like nuclear power, we need to be able to deal with the powerful responsibilities and consequences that come along with it. Humanity’s greatest hopes and deepest fears truly lie in the Nuclear Power Generation!

• There would be an ‘acid rain’ or a ‘nuclear rain’
• We should all have KI pills (Fact: KI stands for potassium iodide, and the pills are distributed to individuals who reside within a 10-mile radius of nuclear power plants)
• Stay inside and keep the doors and windows shut
• There is an itchy feel and burning sensation, we can feel the spread of radiation

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