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December 17, 2017

History And Controversy Of Nuclear Power Plants

Nuclear power has always been contentious due to its very nature. Uranium creates a high burst of energy as it decays, and that energy can be captured for power use. However, it also creates a radioactive waste that must be dealt with, and the possibility of nuclear accidents shadows all of the potential good that they may do. Because of this, there have been few reactors built, and all 100 were built built between 1974 and 1977. Since then, four have been decommissioned due to age, while there have been plans to build five more to replace them. As countries look for means to replace failing petroleum reserves, nuclear power plants may be worth taking a looking at.

Three Mile Island

The possibilities of nuclear power were first debated even as early as 1938. Project Manhattan showed that there was a lot of potential power in splitting the atom for power. However, there were problems capturing that power, making it ideal at first for only weapons. There were additional issues as radiation had debuted only a few decades ago, but its effects were only starting to be really felt. Radiation was already proving to be a fickle servant, as it held tremendous power for good but also created a number of problems as well that needed to be dealt with before it could be truly useful.

History And Controversy Of Nuclear Power Plants

It was not until after World War II that the government decided to look into nuclear power as an energy source. Although radiation was being used to find and deal with diseases, it also caused them as well; exposure to radiation could lead to cancer. However, as the cost for building nuclear power plants was prohibitive, the government had problems justifying the amount. Although the private sector was approached, it was not until the Price-Anderson Act of 1957 that the private sector would even touch nuclear power. That act limited the liability companies could face for even catastrophic accidents involving nuclear power.

Three Mile Island

The Argonne National Laboratory was assigned to the United States Atomic Energy Commission to develop nuclear power. Over the next, decade 52 reactors were built for experimentation, and these would eventually lead to the building of the first nuclear power plants in the 1960s. It is worth noting that the United States Navy contributed; they wanted to take advantage of nuclear power’s ability to use limited fuel for almost unlimited duration, seeing a tactical advantage for its ships and especially its submarines.

Nonetheless, nuclear power plants did not take off until the 1970s. Between 1974 and 1979, almost all of the current reactors would be built, and only recently have any new plants gone past the planning stages. A nuclear power plant represents a massive investment, and there need to a number of safeguards in place before it can go online. Also, it needs to be built where it can get a lot of water for cooling down. It must also be a reasonable distance from any cities in case of even the slightest mishap, while at the same time, near the area it will serve. With this limitation in mind, it makes building nuclear power plants an interesting planning problem.

However, it has not been a smooth road. There have been accidents even since the beginning, although they have been mostly relatively minor. There has even been some controversy, as a proposed plant in Bodega Bay, just north of San Francisco California, was the first plant shut down due to environmental protest, which was just getting really started in the 1960s. Eventually, the environmental movement would be responsible for virtually shutting down the building of new nuclear power plants until recently.

Three Mile Island
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It does not help that there have been problems with nuclear power plants. Almost all nuclear power plants have had some problem, however minor, and 27% of those built have had to shut down for more than a year, while most of the remainder have had to shut down at times. It does not help that nuclear power plants need to be shut down periodically for maintenance, approximately 39 days every 17 months, making them hardly reliable sources of power. Combined with the environmental issues of nuclear waste, and there is some some to doubt the management of the America nuclear program.

There have been three nuclear power plant accidents that have helped serve as rallying points that have made the public uneasy when it comes to nuclear power plants. The Three-Mile Island Power Plant suffered a mishap that while it did not result in any immediate deaths, it did increase cancer rates for years. The Chernobyl Accident, while eventually found out to be gross operator error, demonstrated that a nuclear power plant accident could be dangerous. The Fukushima Incident, although demonstrating that safety features usually worked, had enough leakage to make people cautious. Overall this creates a certain nervousness when it comes to nuclear energy.

Three Mile Island

Given all of these problems it is hardly surprising that a number of people are against nuclear power plants. However, their one saving grace also happens to one that makes them worth the debate: their power output. All of the reactors currently in operation provided 790 terawatts of power in 2011, or enough power to provide 19.2% of total energy needs of the United States. Given that people in general are trying to find ways of weaning themselves from petroleum, and that petroleum is one of the major sources of power, it is understandable that nuclear power is back on the table.

It helps that new designs for nuclear plants may eliminate a number of the maintenance problems, so that plants do not shut down completely for maintenance, and that meltdowns may be a thing of the past. Engineers have taken apart the old designs, looking for any and all possible flaws, and have rebuilt the plants with a number of new safety features. The newer plants look to have all of the safety issues of older designs solved. Even the waste issue has been addressed to at least some degree, making the new designs a lot more environmentally sound.

Nuclear has become part of the new debate over which direction to turn to as the go-to alternative. Although solar power is quickly becoming the environmental favorite, there is still some debate over whether or not nuclear power will be making a comeback in the following years. It is just a matter of making sure all bases are covered; if that can happen then nuclear power plants may just be the part of the future.

History And Controversy Of Nuclear Power Plants

History And Controversy Of Nuclear Power Plants