There are many dangers in the use of nuclear power plants. The most prominent of these dangers include nuclear meltdowns; however, a variety of other problems can arise. There have been a number of situations in which these dangers have become real disasters, giving birth to safety and regulatory agencies.
While nuclear power plants offer a substantial source of power, there are a wide variety of dangers associated with the use of nuclear power. These dangers have created a general fear of nuclear power plants across the United States and much of the world. Nuclear power plants are dangerous from the initial mining operations to gather uranium all the way through the final stages of disposing the byproducts safely. Many scientists are attempting to address these dangers; however, the risks are still prevalent in the technology.
The greatest fear about nuclear power plants is a severe accident in the nuclear reactor. When the whole system or an individual component of a nuclear power plant causes the reactor core to malfunction, it is known as a nuclear meltdown. This occurs most commonly when the sealed nuclear fuel assemblies that house the radioactive materials begin to overheat and melt. If the meltdown becomes too severe, the radioactive elements within the core can be released into the atmosphere and around the area of the power plant. These radioactive materials are highly toxic to all organic life. Because of the geometric design of the reactor cores, a nuclear explosion is impossible; however, smaller explosions such as the release of steam are possible.
Nuclear meltdowns or disasters have occurred at various levels since the creation of nuclear power. The first known partial core meltdown occurred in Ontario, Canada, in 1952. Various disasters occurred in the following years, including the release of radioactive elements into the air on at least four occasions. The most significant disasters took place at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania in 1979 and Chernobyl in Ukraine in 1986. The Three Mile Island accident was a partial core meltdown of a pressurised water reactor. It resulted in the release of 43,000 curies of krypton and 20 curies of iodine-131 into the environment. The Chernobyl disaster reached a level 7 (major accident), according to the International Nuclear Event Scale. Following an initial steam explosion that killed two people, the reactor was destroyed and nuclear fallout was spread around the area. It was necessary to evacuate 600,000 people, and an estimated 4,000 died from radiation-induced cancers.
The long-term danger of nuclear power plants is the disposal of waste products. This waste includes materials that were used in the nuclear fission process. Spent uranium rods contain the highest level of toxins and radiation. They need to be stored in facilities that provide secure and protective barriers to prevent theft or exposure to the soil or water. Most of these facilities are located deep underground. Countries that use nuclear power need to manufacture ways to store these wastes for thousands of years. Low-level waste is also a concern for many companies. Used protective clothing or tools need to be securely stored as well to prevent contamination through ingestion or inhalation.
A serious danger associated with nuclear power plants is the threat of terrorism. Although always a threat, the awareness level by the nuclear power industry and the federal government was increased following the attacks of September 11, 2001. Although a full-scale nuclear explosion is not possible, the radioactive elements can be dispersed around the general vicinity with an act of terror. If a bombing occurred within the power plant, specifically the reactor, the radioactive output could impact every living thing within a 2- to 8-mile radius even with a small explosion. The FBI and Department of Homeland Security have designated every nuclear power plant a potential target and stationed agents accordingly.