The nuclear option is the most controversial form of power here we explore 5 of the most famous nuclear events and look at some basic problems we face when dealing with nuclear power.
Fukushima, Nagasaki, Chernobyl, Hiroshima, the Rainbow Warrior, Moruroa Atoll. These are all names that are closely tied to the most destructive elements of nuclear power. What are some of the challenges we face in dealing with nuclear power.
Hiroshima and Nagasaki
The United States of America is the only country on earth to use nuclear weapons during war time. These two weapons of mass destruction were code named Fat Man and Little Boy. They were dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The bombings occurred on August 6th and August 9th 1945. According to UCLA (the University of California Los Angeles) they killed approximately 150,000 and 75,000 people each. As the numbers cannot be certain these are considered to be conservative estimates.
The radiation levels in these two cities are no different today than the natural amounts in other locations on earth. This is because the bombs detonated at an estimated 600 +-50 metres and 500 meters above sea level. As a result of this much of the radiation was carried away and dispersed by prevailing weather conditions in the days after.
Where this radiation ended up is unknown, however Hiroshima and Nagasaki, obviously were the result of the deliberate use of Nuclear power for destructive reasons.
Hiroshima, Japan: Atomic Bomb Dome, Hiroshima, Japan, the site was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1996
Chernobyl is one of the most famous nuclear disasters in history. The Nuclear reactor near the Soviet City of Prypiat, in Northern Ukraine, suffered a critical incident on 26th April 1986. According to the United Nations a routine 20 second shutdown of the electrical equipment was conducted. Seven seconds after this a power surge caused a chemical explosion resulting in nearly 520 dangerous radionuclides into the atmosphere. It took 3 days for any reports to be released and it was the Swedish authorities who were the ones to announce to the world that a nuclear accident had occurred in the Soviet Union.
It is estimated that 8,400,000 Belarus, Ukraine and Russian citizens were exposed to radiation. This occurred at the height of Cold War Tensions in the 1980’s and a strong contributor to the problem was the Soviet Unions attempted coverup of the issue. It was Sweden who sounded the international alarm and forced the Soviet Union to acknowledge there was a problem.
There are a variety of reports that have come out about this catastrophe in the decades since. These include reports from declassified SBU files indicating Soviet officials knew that the plant was flawed during the design phase. The SBU (the Ukrainian Secret Service) replaced the KGB as the official Ukrainian intelligence organisation. The SBU was developed when the country declared independence at the fall of the Soviet Union.
A KGB report in January 1979 said: “According to operational data, there were deviations from design and violations of technology procedures during building and assembling works. It may lead to accidents.”
The Chernobyl disaster seems so much worse because of geo-political considerations. The refusal of the Soviets to acknowledge the problem. The reports that show their arrogance in building it knowing it was poorly designed is another.
The meltdown of 3 of the reactors in the Fukushima Daiichi Accident was rated a 7 on the INES. This is the worst possible rating on the International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale. The accident occurred on 11th March 2011 and was caused when a magnitude 9.0 earthquake occurred 130km off shore causing damage as well as a tsunami. The tsunami inundated the Fukushima Plant causing damage that resulted in the meltdown of the 3 reactors and irreparable damage to a fourth.
Criticisms have been made of the ways in which the disaster at t Fukushima could have been averted. James M. Acton and Mark Hibbs, who are senior fellows at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. James is a co-director of the Nuclear Policy Program and Mark is a specialist in nuclear verification and safeguards, multilateral nuclear trade policy & international nuclear cooperation and non proliferation. They have criticised the plants owner and Japan’s regulator (NISA) for:
- Not following state of the art best practices for upgrades to the plant.
- Poor planning related to large scale tsunamis
- Insufficient computer modelling of the tsunami threat
- NISA failed to review simulations to develop appropriate models
The meltdown and disaster at Fukushima was caused by an uncontrollable natural disaster. Although the earthquake and subsequent tsunami could not be prevented there are things that could have been done to mitigate the effects.
Also known historically as Aopuni is an atoll that forms part of the Tuamotu Archipelago in French Polynesia. It is located approximately 1250 kilometres southeast of Tahiti in the southern pacific. Between 1966 and 1996 it was one of the sites of French nuclear weapons testing with an estimated 180 tests being conducted over the decades. This resulted in various protests by various ships including the now famous Rainbow Warrior.
France conducted it’s last Nuclear test on 27th January 1996. President Jacques Chirac announced that France would no longer test nuclear weapons. France has since signed and ratified the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. Commonly referred to as the CTBT the treaty has been signed by 184 of the 196 recognised nations. It has been ratified by 167 countries as at 25th September 2018. This means these countries have agreed to be bound by the conditions of the treaty.
The Rainbow Warrior was a Greenpeace owned ship that was active in supporting a series of anti-whaling, anti-seal hunting and anti-nuclear testing activities between 1977 and 1985.
On the 10th July 1985 the ship was sabotaged and sunk by two bombs just before midnight. It was moored at Marsden Wharf in Auckland Harbour New Zealand. The bombing was carried out by French Operatives of the DGSE acting under orders from the French intelligence agency. The bombing is described as an act of terrorism by the New Zealand Government.
Portugese Photographer Fernando Pereira drowned after the second bomb detonated resulting in the ship sinking. Although the DGSE Agents had not planned to kill anyone the death of Pereira was a tragic result of their actions.
Although the Rainbow Warrior was not a nuclear accident of its own the reason for the sinking has been given that the ship was scheduled to continue its participation in protests against French Nuclear testing at Moruroa Atoll.
This illustrates a key challenge that needs to be overcome that there are groups who will risk everything for what they believe in. There are also others who will do anything in order to achieve their own agenda.
The Rainbow Warrior is in Marsden Wharf in Auckland Harbour after the bombing by French secret service agents.
Challenges Nuclear Power Presents
Just from the list of above we see some of the challenges faced in the use of nuclear power. The challenges start with the dedicated use of the technology for destructive purposes as in US use of them in World War II. There is the wilful ignorance of safe design and acknowledgement of issues for geo-political reasons as has been demonstrated by Chernobyl. Then we see the possibility of catastrophic damage caused by natural disaster resulting in environmental contamination.
Some of these challenges have already had steps taken to mitigate them. Steps such as the signing and ratification of a vast majority of the worlds nation states of the CTBT. This has seen a reduction through the cessation of nuclear testing around the world by the majority of nuclear capable countries. It has also had the side effect of there no longer being a need for protests of these activities. This sees individuals put in less danger due to acts of terrorism or retaliation for related, perceived slights or grievances. As a result events such as the sinking of the rainbow Warrior are less likely to happen in relation to Nuclear activities.
We have for the time being eliminate the state sponsored use of nuclear weapons. For the time being we can focus on geo-political and natural disasters being the primary challenges in this list. Geo-political challenges are impacted by a variety of factors that consistently change over time. Natural disasters need to be planned for and the best way to plan for this is through the implementation of proper modelling and testing that the experts advocate.
The other way of mitigating these challenges is through better science applied to the processing of radioactive materials. Even if we were simply aiming at removing the current stockpile of radioactive waste as a challenge this is a necessary pursuit. Just to remove the danger of short sited actions of the past.
Experts in the scientific fields of nuclear physics and engineering have said that it is possible to make nuclear energy much safer. That is the goal that many of them are working towards. In future articles we will look at ways that they are working towards this goal.