The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

December 14, 2017

FEATURE ARTICLES
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Nuclear Power and the Energy Crisis
P. E. Hodgson - 10/22/08

Reactor Accidents

The two reactor accidents that have received wide publicity are that at Three Mile Island in 1979 and the much more serious one at Chernobyl in 1986. The accident at Three Mile Island was initially due to the breakdown of the pumps circulating water in the secondary cooling system. The standby cooling systems failed to come into action, and the reactor temperature rose. The automatic safety system then shut down the reactor, but the radioactive core still emitted heat. The operators at first misinterpreted a dial reading but eventually they brought the reactor under control. A small amount of radioactivity was emitted giving people nearby a dose of about one millirem, which is what they receive every day from natural sources. During the incident several alarming announcements were made to the public, which naturally caused much distress. It was a major financial disaster, and it took more than ten years to remove the damaged reactor at a cost of nearly a billion dollars.

The disaster at Chernobyl was immeasurably worse. It happened by a combination of bad design and operator irresponsibility. The reactor was designed to produce weapons-grade plutonium as well as electrical power. It was thermally unstable at low power, so that overheating would cause further overheating, with catastrophic consequences. The operators were therefore instructed to raise the power rapidly through this dangerous region to ensure stable operation. Such a design would never be accepted in the West. On the fatal night the operators wanted to find out what happened at low power. Fearing that the safety circuits could shut the reactor down before they finished their experiment they switched them off. The power rose rapidly, the graphite caught fire, the cover was blown off, and radioactive materials were discharged into the atmosphere and deposited over much of Europe. Firemen fought the blaze heroically; many received lethal doses of radiation, and fifty-six of them died.

There was, nonetheless, no evidence of excess cases of leukemia or other types of cancer among the hundreds of thousands of workers employed in the clean-up after the accident. Using the discredited linear dose assumption a large increase in cancer victims all over Europe due to the radioactivity released into the atmosphere was predicted, causing much public anxiety. For the same reason large numbers of people were needlessly evacuated from the region around the reactor, causing much distress. Many countries immediately lost faith in nuclear power and opposed the construction of new nuclear power stations. Since that time, more realistic appraisals, especially by industrialists, have convinced them of the necessity of nuclear power, and many new power reactors are being built or are planned. [8] The reactors now in operation are so designed that such accidents can never happen again.

Notes

  1. P. E. Hodgson, Nuclear Power, Energy and the Environment. (London: Imperial College Press, 1999). This book contains many references to the topics discussed in this article.
  2. Sir Richard Doll, H. J. Evans, and S. C. Darby, Nature 367.678.1994.
  3. B. L. Cohen, “Validity of the Linear No-Threshold Theory of Radiation Carcinogenesis at Low Doses,” Nuclear Energy 38.157.1999.
  4. See also J. A. Simmons and D. E. Watt, Radiation Protection Dosimetry—A Radical Reappraisal. (Wisconsin: Medical Physics Publishing, 1999).
  5. Lord Taverne, Speech in the House of Lords. SONE Newsletter No. 71.
  6. Ludwig E. Feinendegen, lecture at the Conference on Nuclear Radiations and their Effects, Nagasaki, August 2004.
  7. M. Tubiana and A. Aurengo, Nuclear Issues (October 2005), 3.
  8. See Ref. 1, pp 81–94 for discussion of Chernobyl. Further details in Nuclear Issues (October 2005).
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