Why Stick with it after disaster?

On April 15, the year of our Lord, 2011, a British Broadcasting Corporation’s (BBC’s) news headline on their website screamed Tepco to compensate Japan's nuclear plant victims.

To shed some light on a related event - the Chernobyl disaster in April 1986: Firstly, 30 people were killed instantly, including 28 from radiation exposure, and a further 209 on site were treated for acute radiation poisoning.

Secondly, the World Health Organization (WHO) is reported to have found that the fallout from the explosion was incredibly far-reaching. For a time, radiation levels in Scotland , over 2,300 km away, were 10,000 times the norm.

and Thirdly, thousands of cancer deaths were a direct result of the accident. The accident cost the former Soviet Union more than three times the economical benefits accrued from the operation of every other Soviet nuclear power plant operated between 1954 and 1990.

It's also noteworthy that in March 1979 equipment failures and human error contributed to an accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear reactor at Harrisburg , Pennsylvania , the worst such accident in U.S. history. Consequences of the incident include radiation contamination of surrounding areas, increased cases of thyroid cancer, and plant mutations.

More informative is that according to the US House of Representatives, Subcommittee on Oversight & Investigations, “Calculation of Reactor Accident Consequences (CRAC2) for US Nuclear Power Plants” (1982, 1997), an accident at a US nuclear power plant could kill more people than were killed by the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki .

What would be the possibilities of environmental degradation?

Firstly, all the steps in the complex process of creating nuclear energy entail environmental hazards.

Secondly, the mining of uranium, as well as its refining and enrichment, and the production of plutonium produce radioactive isotopes that contaminate the surrounding area, including the groundwater, air, land, plants, and equipment. As a result, humans and the entire ecosystem are adversely and profoundly affected.

Thirdly, some of these radioactive isotopes are extraordinarily long-lived, remaining toxic for hundreds of thousands of years.

China has temporary suspended approval of any new nuclear reactors until the government formulates safety guidelines for the inspection of operating reactors, while Germany has shut down its seven nuclear reactors.

Concerns over nuclear waste disposal and the destructive potential of nuclear weapons viewed against the political instabilities on the African continent paint a grim picture of nuclear energy.

Tokyo Electric Company, Tepco, the operator of the Fukushima nuclear plant in in the recent disaster was ordered by the Japanese government to compensate a minimum 148,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) assuming an average of 3 persons per family. According to this news a total of 48,000 families displaced within a 30 KM radius of the ill-fated Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactor had to be compensated at a cost of $12,000 each beginning April 28, 2011, accumulating to a whooping $24 Billion by the end of the year. In my considered view, this is just the beginning of the start of a series of legal appeals for compensation. There is a strong possibility that more compensation calculations will be done resulting to further claims as the effects of this massive radiation become apparent on the victims in the not so distant future, the losses occasioned on shut down businesses within the vicinity notwithstanding. The health effects and hazards remain in place for thousands of years in either form of nuclear reactor - fission or fusion type. The effects of the latter are shorter lived.

After a lengthy meditational consideration an individual once resignedly remarked, No matter how thinly one slices something, it ends up with two faces. A coin, for instance, is just a slice of metal and unquestioningly exhibits the aforementioned characteristic. This can only reinforce, into our subconscious, the idea of universal neighborliness (or coexistence) of many things, a very thin line drawn between – light and darkness, sanity and madness, riches and poverty, good and evil, joy and sadness, action and reaction, health and illness, progress and retardation to mention but a few. If we remind ourselves some basic physics in Newtons Laws of Motion, A body propelled in some direction will move endlessly undeterred unless it encounters a force in its path. Since there exist too many such opposing forces in real life, and end is guaranteed for every occurrence and that’s why the laws of Murphy, the optimist as much by saying, If you are enjoying (struggling through) a situation, do not worry as this state of affairs will soon end
The potential of nuclear energy to spur economic growth cannot be underestimated. Its relative friendliness to the environment at a time when global warming due to the use of fossil fuel is wreaking havoc makes it the best option.

Nonetheless, in the midst of these hopes are fears that threaten to drown the benefits of nuclear energy.

Nuclear energy generation utilises the heat resulting from the splitting of atoms. This heat is harnessed and used to heat water which in turn yields steam that drives a turbine generator.

Today, there are over 440 nuclear plants in 47 countries, 104 of them in the USA alone, where they supply more than 20 per cent of the domestic and industrial energy. In Africa, there is only one fully operational nuclear facility in South Africa, with seven others at various stages of development.

The proponents of nuclear energy say that Africa must embrace it to meet the ever-growing industrial demands. But the opponents counter this by saying the continent lacks the capacity to run such high-risk technology while it is yet to fully exploit the abundant geothermal, hydro- and solar-energy resources.

However, Kenya is among the African countries warming up to nuclear energy. Last year, the Kenya National Economic and Social Council recommended the formation of a committee to lay the ground for nuclear energy generation by 2020. Several sites have been identified.

This will be a critical component if Vision 2030 is to be realised.

Heralding nuclear energy as the power of choice for the industrial prosperity and posterity, the developing East African nation of Kenya, in pursuant of its much hyped vision 2030 that seeks to radically industrialize the country within two decades, recently got United Nations nod to fundraise and proceed on with its ambitious plans to upscale its installed national power generation capacity by an additional 200% of the current one thanks to a nuclear reactor in the offing.

The power generation capacity of the planned venture is 3500 Megawatts (MW), which is more than double the current installed capacity of under1500 Megawatts (MW). Once this plant is completed and flagged off, the combined national industrial and domestic power needs will be dwarfed in the shadow of its capacity. There will be far much more installed capacity that the government will effortlessly afford to provide free power to investors bringing in direct foreign investment (DFI) to solve its burgeoning unemployment. It is envisaged that the power imports from Ethiopia and Uganda as well as supplementary power generated from environmentally unsustainable diesel that they have had to contend with will be a thing of the past, and that it will take Kenya another 3 decades to match the population’s power needs with this available capacity with absolutely no supplementation. This follows the projection that the demand for power in Kenya will grow a sustained rate of 6.2% per annum for the next two or so decades. In the meantime, the country will manage to export power to its former supplier neighbors.

What a rosy forecast! Plug this scenario into Kenya’s well-developed human resources, a lot of whom work abroad within and without Africa and you will envision the great leaps and bounds the country is likely to make. Serious economic gains occasioned by this occurrence will stem further brain drain and entice a fair percentage of Kenyans living abroad back to play leading roles in their nation building.

Citing advantages of nuclear energy as highlighted in an article posted by James Chen on eHow website titled Renewable Energy Vs Nuclear Energy, Nuclear energy has the largest baseline energy output per unit of any available electrical energy source. Though the individual units of uranium it uses are costly, its ability to be used over a significantly long period of time makes it a more effective fuel source than petroleum.” As if to emphasize the immense capacity inherent in this kind of energy source he adds, “It has been mistaken for a renewable energy source thanks to its ubiquitous presence not only in the earth, but also in seawater.

As Kenya celebrated United Nations green-light on its intended establishment of a nuclear reactor recently, a couple of weeks had lapsed with Japan, a world renown energy technology giant, mourning an unprecedented and un-anticipated widespread radiation that had out-paced the best of today’s nuclear engineers on the globe. The visibly shaken Japanese engineers (appearing on Cable News Network, CNN) kept doing all there was they could to maintain brave faces (perhaps realizing that everyone was looking up to them for solutions and reassurance. They would go to any length to demonstrate that a nuclear plant had not been a failed experiment after all. I presume they constantly kept stumbling on new frontiers in a mirage of nuclear horizons as things kept unraveling before their very eyes at seconds, minutes and hours ticked on. They (nuclear Engineers) had no choice, but remain composed and present taking charge as a doctor would while attending a dying patient. The confidentiality that surrounds a country’s nuclear technology (as a state secret) did not favor the Japanese either as their nuclear secrets needed to be concealed from their western peers, who in these circumstances naturally needed to be called on to help. It must have been technically practical to collaborate in this programme with their former colonies, South Korea and China with whom they share historical ties.

Falling back to my reference article by James Chen on eHow to shed light on the other face of nuclear energy, I quote:

There are many serious problems with nuclear energy, starting with the enormous cost of establishing a nuclear power plant. Costs for a new reactor can run as high as $15 billion, making it extremely cost-prohibitive for most communities, and even nations. A more intrinsic problem, however, is the issue of what to do with nuclear waste. The highly radioactive byproducts of nuclear fission create a massive health and security hazard, and remain so for thousands of years. There is currently no easy way to handle nuclear waste.

The BBC news on 15th of April, 2011, lamented that an estimated 1,000 bodies still lie in the 30 KM radius stretch surrounding the ill-fated nuclear reactor, unrecovered and unburied, more than 30 days from the day they ceased to live because of the fear of the unknown that hangs heavy on the horizon.

Now, the arithmetical revelations involving this catastrophe baffle me – an 8-month compensation payout of $ 24 Billion slapped on the operator of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant is much more than the $ 15 Billion the operator invested to establish the new plant! What further astounds me is the kind of insurance that takes care of these colossal amounts in claims?

Placed between a hard place and a rock is the human race on the two major variants of nuclear power generation systems – fission and fusion.

Russia’s Chernobyl nuclear meltdown in 1986, which was largely blamed on human error, dealt a major blow to the sprouting technology. The disaster led to the displacement of more than 30,000 families, and caused thousands of deaths. The lessons were learnt, and legally binding global safety guidelines developed.

Every scientific innovation carries with it risks. Unfortunately, such weaknesses give ammunition to opponents, but it is the analysis of these risks that subsequently leads to growth of any invention.

Travel by air was considered the most dangerous mode of transport, but the advancement in aeronautics and cross-pollination with other fields has produced the safest means of transport today.

My eHow article reference proposes that the fusion type is a lesser evil and a more versatile form of nuclear energy in what it sub-headlines as Other Alternatives. To this end it says:

“Fusion energy, while sharing the cost problem of fission reactors, promises two major benefits in the use of nuclear energy. The first is the avoidance of the radioactivity problem inherent in fission energy, as fusion's radioactive byproducts are much shorter-lived.”

In the foregoing quote, I have a problem swallowing the word AVOIDANCE. The author should have done some justice by replacing this word with ALLEVIATING or more still LESSENING.

Then the quoted eHow contributor James Chen proceeds as follows:

“The second advantage to fusion energy is its theoretically massive power output. The industrialized world's increasing demand for energy makes a single fusion plant arguably more tempting than an equivalent amount of renewable energy sources, because of the greater geographic coverage the latter would take up.”

At least for now as I tend towards the finale of my write up, someone must do a follow up to know whether the nuclear reactor the ambitious government of Kenyan plans to build is a fission or fusion type. While I do not know which of these two the TEPCO plant at Fukushima Daiichi is, I wish it were the latter as it is comparatively safer.

A lot of mystery shrouds the actual working of a nuclear reactor and a lot many of its traits or attributes are yet to be known conclusively. It will take time, hard-work, experimentation, astronomical expenditure and a series of catastrophic encounters with this form of energy like those the world saw at Chernobyl and Fukushima to demystify the inherent secrets that will eventually make it a safe option for the future generations, who may come to use it in a completely harmless environment – their forefathers and mothers having paid the price beforehand.

So far, there have only been two notable and remarkable nuclear acccidents over a span of 25 years. One happened in Ukraine April 1986 while the other just happened in March 2011 in Japan. And mark you, the causes of the two accidents are worlds apart - while the Chernobyl is accident was a product of human error, the Fukushima one was purely beyond human control as it was sparked of by a natural disaster. This calls into question the justification of any condemnation of nuclear power by the so called anti-nuclear power activists.

After all, it is unfair to dismiss all these 47, perhaps most developed and progressive nations at the top of the world as ill-equipped to justify the existence of nuclear power which they have whole-heartedly embraced. These nations aren't so stupid to embrace a technology they have not weighed appropriately. If anything, the USA as the world's current superpower that has established a lion's share of all existing nuclear plants operational today, must be extremely "dumb".

For our information www.world-nuclear.org/info/chernobyl/inf07.htm says:

The April 1986 disaster at the Chernobyla nuclear power plant in Ukraine was the product of a flawed Soviet reactor design coupled with serious mistakes made by the plant operators. It was a direct consequence of Cold War isolation and the resulting lack of any safety culture.

The accident destroyed the Chernobyl 4 reactor, killing 30 operators and firemen within three months and several further deaths later. One person was killed immediately and a second died in hospital soon after as a result of injuries received. Another person is reported to have died at the time from a coronary thrombosisc. Acute radiation syndrome (ARS) was originally diagnosed in 237 people on-site and involved with the clean-up and it was later confirmed in 134 cases. Of these, 28 people died as a result of ARS within a few weeks of the accident. Nineteen more subsequently died between 1987 and 2004 but their deaths cannot necessarily be attributed to radiation exposured. Nobody off-site suffered from acute radiation effects although a large proportion of childhood thyroid cancers diagnosed since the accident is likely to be due to intake of radioactive iodine falloutd. Furthermore, large areas of Belarus, Ukraine, Russia and beyond were contaminated in varying degrees. See also sections below and Chernobyl Accident Appendix 2: Health Impacts.

The Chernobyl disaster was a unique event and the only accident in the history of commercial nuclear power where radiation-related fatalities occurred. However, the design of the reactor is unique and the accident is thus of little relevance to the rest of the nuclear industry outside the then Eastern Bloc.

The Chernobyl nuclear  accident in Ukraine, The Three Mile Island Nuclear reactor accident in Pensylvania, and that of Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactor in Japan are a drop in the sea considering a whooping 440 nuclear plants currently operational in the world.

At the moment, take it or leave it, it is can only be likened to a razor-sharp-two-edged sword concealed in an innocent looking leather sheath.

After all, the wise say, “As long as the clouds won’t weep, the pastures will never laugh.”