Nuclear energy is the form of energy generated at a nuclear power plant by splitting atoms to produce heat, which is used by turbines to generate electricity. The process of splitting the atoms is referred to as fission and uranium is the material that is used in the process. The electricity can then be safely transferred to consumers at their residential areas or workplaces to be used for different purposes.
Although Martin Heinrich Klaproth, a German chemist, discovered uranium in the year 1789, the first power plant to produce electricity by splitting uranium atoms started its operation in the 1950s. Previously, most scientists had been concentrating on the production of atomic bombs to aid in wars. However, with the ever-surging world population, the need for energy has been increasing as consumption increases too.
This aspect compels energy producers to turn to other sustainable power supply alternatives and nuclear energy comes in handy in such a scenario. Apart from the generation of electricity, nuclear power can be used in many other areas such as in medicine to detect and treat certain ailments and food preservation among other useful ways that can improve the quality of people’s lives.
Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant
Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant is situated in Japan, 130 miles north of Tokyo and it was built under the watch of Kajima Construction Corporation, Ltd. Its construction kicked off in the 1960s before becoming operational in the year 1971 and the Tokyo Electric Power Company ran it. It was one of the most powerful nuclear plants in the world with six nuclear reactors capable of producing 4.7 gigawatts of electricity.
GE, Toshiba, and Hitachi supplied the reactors, which were GE boiling water reactors that produce electricity through steam-powered electrical generators. Its construction was a significant boost in generation of electricity in Japan as it relies on nuclear power for one-third of its electricity.
Natural disasters are inevitable and they can happen any time, causing massive damage to property and loss of lives. An earthquake of magnitude of 9.0 hit the Fukushima Daiichi facility in 2011. The enormous earthquake led to a tsunami wave measuring estimated 13.1 meters high that hit the shores leading to the death of 16000 people and a nuclear crisis in Japan as the facility was greatly affected by this disaster.
Although previously there had been other major nuclear accidents such as Chernobyl disaster in 1986 and Three Mile Island in 1979, the Fukushima Daiichi accident stands out as the most disastrous as lots of radiation was released. The plant, which was built to contain a lesser hit, could not handle the hit by the earthquake and tsunami led to the release of harmful radiation from the facility.
The reactors automatically shut down, but there was the need for cooling off due to the high accumulation of radioactive material after the immediate shutdown. This process was affected by the fact that the available backup generators were not operational as they were submerged in water.
Efforts by the crew to cool the three reactors to safe levels were futile as there was no alternative source of power since all external power lines from Japan’s power grid had been destroyed by the tsunami. This aspect led to nuclear meltdown and eventually the disastrous release of radioactive iodine-131 and cesium-137 to the environment.
The designers of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant underestimated the dangers that natural disasters could pose as the plant was only built to contain less half the tsunami that hit it in 2011. In addition, the earthquake surpassed the seismic design basis of the plant at units 2, 3, and 5.
Japan, being one of the most technologically advanced countries in the world, had established a government-sponsored organization for earthquake research promotion.
This organization was very effective in predicting possible earthquakes as it had previously predicted the possibility of an earthquake of 7.5 magnitudes at the offshore of Miyagi region, which was the epicenter of the earthquake that affected the normal operations at the nuclear power plant.
Despite these warnings of an anticipated earthquake in the next thirty years, Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), which owns the plant, failed to see the importance of investing money, time, and more skilled workforce to improve further the safety of the nuclear plant.
TEPCO should have followed the example of France, which upgraded the defense of its nuclear plants after the incident at Blayais Nuclear Power Plant, in a move that helped in the prevention of catastrophic effects of being hit by external factors like an earthquake, as they were aware of it.
The Fukushima disaster could have also been avoided if TEPCO had considered the importance of having reliable back up supply of power if the external supply lines of electricity were all knocked down. Though they had multiple diesel generators, which could be relied on, they failed to move them to higher ground or ensure that they were watertight to avoid the possibility of the operation being affected by water.
By being submerged in water, the backup generators could not operate and thus the process of cooling the operational three nuclear reactors was affected and this aspect led to the release of large quantities radioactivity to the atmosphere.
In addition, by relocating the emergency power grids to well-positioned areas might have cushioned them to natural disasters like earthquakes and tsunamis among others for it would mean the elevated grounds would withstand seism.
These suggestions underline the fact that the disaster was preventable, but due to technical hitches, training of the personnel, design of the facility, and putting into considerations about the possibility of an earthquake in the area, the unexpected happened. If the right measures were put in place, this disaster would have been prevented.
TEPCO also failed to use historical data gathered on the possibility of large earthquakes before setting the nuclear plant in the earthquake-prone area. Japanese researchers had discovered the field as having suffered an earthquake of 8.3 magnitudes in 869 AD. These findings should have served as the design basis for preventing a tsunami from affecting the power plant instead of using the original design of 3.1 meters.
If greater attention had been given to the historical findings of the researchers, TEPCO would have noticed that 3.1 meters was not enough to prevent the damage that could be caused by an earthquake of 8.3 magnitudes, as the defense mechanism was inadequate. Instead, they would have raised the 3.1 meters and improve the infrastructure for the facility to defend itself in case of a possible disaster better.
Environmental effects of Fukushima disaster
To date, the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant disaster ranks as the most expensive natural disaster in history as it cost the country 300 billion USD. The failure of the cooling system, which led to the explosion of the active three nuclear reactors, accelerated the disaster as the people within a radius of 20 km from the nuclear plant had to be evacuated and the land could no longer be used productively.
In addition, those around the Fukushima Daini Nuclear Power plant had to leave as a precaution measure to avoid the damaging effects of radiation though the tsunami or the earthquake did not affect the plant.
The inhabitants of these areas had to leave everything that they possessed though the government did not compensate them well enough, as there was a high presence of radioactive cesium, which renders this area inhabitable for many centuries to come.
The decontamination of these areas was not successful as contaminated snow and rainwater would run down the hills and contaminate the already contaminated areas. Hence, the neighborhoods near Fukushima will definitely be inhabitable for many years to come.
The environmental effects of the disaster also extended to agricultural products. The Japanese government established that the agrarian products near the nuclear plant were contaminated beyond the regulatory limits that they had set. The release of the large amount of radioactive cesium from the nuclear plant led to the contamination of the soil, water, plants, and animals.
The high level of contamination was evident in the foodstuffs such as meat, milk, and tealeaves. In addition, green tea with origins near the Fukushima plant was discovered in France and it had high levels of radioactivity. Unfortunately, foodstuffs were contaminated as aforementioned and this aspect complicated the disaster as it became hard to contain the contamination.
It was also difficult to tell the extent of the contamination as people who had consumed such foods might have moved to other places thus making it hard to assess the situation with high levels of precision.
The consumption of foodstuffs contaminated by radioactive cesium even in low quantities is harmful to the human body as it leads to bioaccumulation in crucial body parts like the heart, liver, pancreas, spleen, as well as endocrine tissues. The result of the ionization radiation in internal organs is catastrophic; hence, the need to prevent these products from public use.
The government had to put some control measures to prevent the distribution of these products to its citizens as a safety measure to mitigate the possibility of them ever being exposed to any kind of radioactivity.
Apart from contaminating the land, the disaster also had devastating effects on the ocean. Some water used in the coolants allegedly drained into the ocean, hence complicating the situation given that it is difficult to contain or purify seawater. It was established that historically, the Fukushima nuclear power plant produced the most significant radioactivity discharge to the ocean.
This aspect greatly affected the seafood business in Japan as most of it come from northeast of the Fukushima nuclear plant. The seafood near the nuclear plant was contaminated with radioactive material and was thus the Japanese government rendered it unfit for human consumption.
The findings revealed that the radioactive cesium in fish and other marine creatures exceeded the Japanese regulatory limits. The discharge of radioactive water to the Pacific Ocean exposed more people to radioactivity, which meant that people could ingest the contaminated water or food, increasing the chances of them contracting cancer-related ailments.
The disaster at Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, which caused massive radiation contamination to the Japanese mainland, had lots of damaging effects, especially to the people living around the plant. These people were exposed to radiation levels of 20 millisieverts per year in their entire lives.
By being exposed to high levels of radiation, it means that they are at risk of contracting life-threatening diseases like cancer. Radiation causes very damaging effects to the human body tissues as it damages the DNA and changes the cell structure, an effect known as adverse tissue reaction or deterministic effect.
Unfortunately, the more a person is exposed to radiation, the more chances there is in contracting deadly life conditions. The exposure of radiation has acute effects on children whose immune system is not fully developed; hence, the early development of cancer. Children were also prone to the massive intake of radioactive isotopes released to the atmosphere as they breathe more air per minute as compared to adults.
However, this scenario could be avoided using countermeasures such as absorbents, which exclude radionuclides and ensure that internal organs are not exposed to any radiation. Cancer contracted due to radiation is hard to detect as it appears years after the exposure meaning it is hard to be treated.
Future of nuclear use internationally
In the past, there have been catastrophic events since the discovery of using nuclear energy to produce electricity. Nuclear energy technology plays an important role in the United States coupled with other developed countries and some developing countries to produce electricity and at the same time preserving the environment by emitting less carbon dioxide and other pollutants of the atmosphere.
To date, nuclear energy plays an essential role as it contributes to 14% of the world’s electricity and as compared to fossil fuels like coal and oil, it pollutes the airless and smaller amounts of fuel are required to make electricity. Hence, the safe use of nuclear energy in the future will aid in avoiding situations like global warming due to the increased release of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.
Global warming has affected the lifestyles of many people worldwide and the use of nuclear energy will help in avoiding this problem while meeting the growing demand for electricity. With the world population increasing, demand for electricity in the future will increase tremendously.
Therefore, there is a need to devise a reliable source of energy that does not pollute the environment. Nuclear energy in the future can be used in the generation of large-scale electricity without posing any threat to the environment.
Apart from electricity, nuclear will also be useful in the field of medicine in the future. People with life-threatening medical conditions like cancer will benefit from radiotherapy.
Radiotherapy involves the use of calculated radiation to weaken or damage cancer cells that may be forming in the human cells, which is an essential step in treatment as millions of people have been diagnosed with cancer already and new cases keep on increasing. Medical practitioners will also benefit from gamma rays, which are very useful in sterilization on top of being cheaper and effective as compared to steam heat sterilization.
However, the use of nuclear energy in future is faced with specific issues that could be harmful. One of these issues is the long-term disposal of radioactive material that can be harmful to the environment, which explains why the president of the United States Barrack Obama canceled Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository.
Long-term disposal of radioactive material needs to be put into consideration if nuclear energy will be of benefit to the people in future.
It is important to note that nuclear energy can only be useful in playing the role of providing electricity in the future if safety measures are taken according to international standards. With a majority of countries trying to become industrialized, natural sources of energy like solar energy and coal do not offer sustainable energy supply and thus nuclear energy appears as the only plausible way out.
Therefore, observing safety and embracing internationally recognized standards will help in evading disasters that have been experienced in the past in nuclear power plants, which led to the release of radioactivity to the environment.
There is also a need to invest more funds and skilled workforce in the United States as well as other countries in research in a bid to come up with nuclear reactors that are much safer and powerful to avoid accidental release of radiation. Though not every atomic plant can be said to be free of accidents, the management of the nuclear plants should be fully committed to safety measures.
The mitigation measures if effected according to the set standards, it will be possible to prevent other nuclear plant accidents, which continue to threaten the very existence of human beings.