I waiver on the fence sometimes, but when forced to make a decision, I know what side I’ll land on regarding nuclear energy. The Fukushima nuclear disaster has been making headlines again as we acknowledge the five-year anniversary and take a closer look at arising health issues and how the clean up process is going. The 9.0 earthquake struck Japan back in March 2011, and triggered the devastating tsunami and the meltdown at the Fukushima nuclear plant. The effects were disastrous, and we are still recovering. Is nuclear energy worth the risk? It depends on your knowledge of radiation risk and nuclear energy.
Nuclear energy is the process of harvesting energy from breaking apart nuclei of elements, most popularly uranium. This unstable process creates radiation, which enters our environment and can dissipate over water and air. Areas such as Chernobyl, where there was a large nuclear disaster in 1986, have greatly reduced biodiversity and lack of algae and bacteria growth due to the radioactive leaks that occurred on-site. As you move farther away from the disaster site, the radiation risk is reduced drastically.
How much radiation is safe? The area surrounding Fukushima is still a contaminated site as workers continue to locate the nuclear fuel and clean up. When the disaster occurred, there was an evacuation of 150,000 people from within 20 kilometers of the nuclear plant. Last fall, the Japanese government started allowing some residents, in certain locations, to return to their homes. Radiation is measured in millisievert (mSv) commonly referred to as a dose. Every day we are exposed to low levels of radiation from naturally occurring radioactive materials, and procedures, such as X-rays, can expose us to higher levels. Overall any radiation more than 100 dose causes mild radiation sickness such as vomiting, diarrhea and fatigue, and more than a 400 dose can cause early death. The average X-ray gives off about a seven dose of radiation, and every year we are exposed to about a three dose of naturally occurring radiation.
Nuclear energy is cleaner than coal or oil. The process creates far less greenhouse gases than burning coal or oil for fuel, and without the input of nuclear energy, we would have used more fossil fuels. Researchers from Columbia University Earth Institute calculated that nuclear power prevented an average of 64 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide-equivalent net greenhouse gas emissions globally between 1971-2009. They also estimate an average of 76,000 deaths per year were avoided between 2000-2009 by not producing more fossil fuel energy.
This isn’t just an issue across the world. The Fukushima disaster was located in water and fishing is still banned around the site. For a short time after the accident, fisheries around the world were monitored for the effects of radiation, especially the Pacific Ocean along the California coast. In the five years, scientists have found the radiation levels have diffused and diluted in water to be at a safe level. As The Observer related the radiation risk, “if you breathed California’s most radioactive air and drank its most radioactive water for an entire year, you would get the same (radioactive) exposure as a single dental X-ray.”
Many people are shocked to hear we have nuclear plants here in Texas. In fact, one is located a short 60 miles southwest of Dallas, nearby Glen Rose. As we seek ways to decrease our carbon dioxide emissions to meet strict greenhouse gas standards, nuclear energy will have a place in the energy game. Currently, nuclear provides less than 10 percent of our Texas energy needs. Knowing the disaster risk, and watching the increase in earthquakes and their magnitude in our area, makes me concerned for the safety of our nuclear plants.
Many factors (political, social, economic) come into play when talking energy, but if we remember the overall goal of energy, our answer becomes simple. We want to provide an energy source that meets the needs of people while also having a small impact on the environment. We’ve only had three major nuclear disasters, and nuclear energy is cleaner than coal and oil, yet safer measures may lie in investing in other renewables such as solar.