Thursday, January 10, 2008

UK - govt boost to nuclear power

The British government has given the go ahead to build a new generation of nuclear power stations [BBC]. But whilst nuclear power would reduce carbon dioxide emissions, environmental campaigners are concerned the danger from nuclear waste management outweighs any benefit. There are also concerns over safety after 3 major accidents in the short history of nuclear power.

Britain was the first country to suffer from a nuclear accident when a fire caused a major radioactive leak at Windscale in Cumbria. The fire, which struck the atomic plant on 10th October 1957, destroyed the core and released an estimated 750 terabecquerels (TBq) (20,000 curies) of radioactive material into the surrounding environment, including Iodine-131, which is taken up in the body by the thyroid. Consequently milk and other produce from the surrounding farming areas had to be destroyed. In 1979 a partial meltdown occurred at Three Mile Island in the US, and although there was no leak of radioactivity, the cleanup was slow and costly and resulted in a protracted decline in the public popularity of nuclear power, exemplifying for many the worst fears about nuclear technology.

Those fears were realized seven years later when a major accident at a Russian nuclear power plant at Chernobyl resulted in widespread radioactive contamination and many deaths. A 2005 report prepared by the Chernobyl Forum, led by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and World Health Organization (WHO), attributed 56 direct deaths (47 accident workers, and nine children with thyroid cancer), and estimated that there may be 4,000 extra deaths due to cancer among the approximately 600,000 most highly exposed and 5,000 among the 6 million living nearby.

But aside of these high profile cases there has been over twenty significant accidents at civilian plants in the 50 year history of nuclear power [list]. Additionally there has been dozens of military accidents since the 1940s [list].
Proponents of nuclear power say that it is safer now than it has ever been. However there is still concerns over what to do with the low and high level radioactive waste resulting from nuclear power generation. The amount of High Level Waste worldwide is currently increasing by about 12,000 metric tons every year, which is the equival to about 100 double-decker busses or a two-story structure built on top of a basketball court. And the debate, as to how this waste might be dealt with, continues. With the half-life of some radioactive elements being in excess of millions of years, the problem is of great concern. Most of the isotopes produced have significantly shorter half-lives. Plutonium, 239Pu, has a half-life of 24,100 years, while at the low end of the scale Iodine-131 has a half-life of 8 days.
For many environmentalists, the damage has already been done. Since 1945, approximately 7700 kg has been released into the Earth’s atmosphere from nuclear tests.

Further resources: / / nuclear maps / nuclear maps

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