While topics such as global climate change solutions and clean energy sources remain a major topic of debate worldwide, we cannot afford to overlook the potential of nuclear energy and the drawbacks of “green” alternatives. Wind turbines depend too much on the conditions of the weather, and the most efficient solar panels we had as of January can convert only 25.4 percent of absorbed sunlight into electricity(Renewable Energy World editors ASU researchers Break Solar-Cell Efficiency Record, 2019). Although nuclear energy carries with it the stigma of being utilized to create weapons of mass destruction as well as having been responsible for lethal incidents such as the chernobyl disaster, it is the most efficient and viable alternative to energy produced through the burning of fossil fuels.
The potential of the atom’s use for the production of energy was first discussed when scientists from around the world met in washington D.C. at a 1939 conference on theoretical physics. “They discussed the exciting possibility of a self-sustaining chain reaction.
In such a process, atoms could be split to release large amounts of energy.”
(U.S. Department of Energy Office of Nuclear Energy, Science and Technology Washington, D.C. 20585) When discussing nuclear power plants and their production of electricity, the process in question is fission, or the splitting of atoms to release energy stored within their molecular bonds. Another means of producing nuclear energy but has not yet been harnessed by mankind is nuclear fusion, which occurs when multiple nuclei collide at a high speed and form a new nucleus.
This is the same process that the gasses within the sun are constantly undergoing, and has yet to be created in a sustainable manner by human effort.
The aforementioned Chernobyl disaster remains one of the most notorious events in the history of nuclear technology, and for good reason. 30 casualties were recorded within 3 months of the incident, and 19 more died in the years following, but their deaths cannot be directly linked to radiation exposure for certain. “The April 1986 disaster at the Chernobylnuclear 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.” (World Nuclear Association, “Chernobyl accident 1986”) One day prior to the incident, the crew had begun disabling the safety mechanisms of the reactor in preparation for a scheduled test. A flaw in the design of the reactor control rods combined with crew who lacked the training to notice or respond to the situation in time caused a power surge and steam explosion due to increased pressure. A second explosion followed which killed one worker immediately, and another succumbed to his wounds shortly after. Graphite contained within the reactor was expelled into the facility and started a number of fires which led to the release of radioactive material that still poses a risk to living things in the area. This radiation is estimated to keep the area uninhabitable by humans for hundreds if not thousands of years, however many animals have returned to the area and appear to be living normally apart from having abnormally high levels of radiation themselves.
Accidents like this can prove to be extremely dangerous to both people in the area and the local ecosystem, and are the primary point of contention in discussions on the future of nuclear energy, however the chances of such an event occurring were low even in 1968 when the accident occured. All three of the most notorious nuclear incidents, being Chernobyl, Fukushima, and 3 mile island, could easily have been avoided and were caused or aided by human error. Safety conditions in the fukushima plant were below requirements, but were not reported, and the 3 mile island accident was caused by a malfunctioning valve in the reactor which should have brought about an automatic shutdown, but further mistakes in operating procedure and equipment malfunction led to loss of coolant and eventual leak of radioactive material from the core.
The idea of using fission based weapons in armed conflict had existed before the beginning of WWII, however no country had made much progress in the development of such a thing. Due to the allies concerns towards germany’s rapid development of new military technology that would soon include nuclear weapons, the manhattan project was created as a means of sharing information and resources to ensure that they were beaten to the punch. While the United States and Britain where both pivotal to the project, Soviet leaders were not informed of its existence. The Manhattan project brought many of the world’s greatest minds together to be part of one of the most important scientific developments in history. Although the project did not produce results until after Germany’s surrender, two functioning bombs were created and deployed against Japan, forcing them to surrender. This is the first and only time that a nuclear weapon has ever deployed outside of weapons tests. While the fear of nuclear war is often expressed when discussing either North Korea or Russia, neither country would have anything to gain by deploying such a weapon against the United States or any other country. Instead of being used in the same way as other bombs or conventional weapons, nuclear arms have been used as a kind of national insurance policy that effectively ensures that the country can never truly be conquered through invasion. In this way, the development of nuclear bombs has been a major step in ensuring peace between world powers.
The decision to use these weapons against Japan in WWII has been harshly criticized, the projected casualties of a full scale invasion of japan reached well into the millions for both sides due to the Japanese military’s use of a warped interpretation of the ancient code of Bushido to justify atrocities against prisoners and suicidal tactics used as a last ditch effort to bring down as many of the enemy as possible. Under Bushido, it is considered to be dishonorable to be captured by one’s enemy, which is part of the reason for japan’s use of kamikaze planes during naval engagements, and why many civilians jumped to their deaths from the notorious “suicide cliff” on the island of Saipan after it was taken by allied forces, or the mass suicides of both military personnel and civilians in the caves of Okinawa once defeat was ensured.
Even when considering the drawbacks and reputation of nuclear energy, it remains as one of the most viable sources of power for the distant future. Green alternatives such as solar and wind cannot survive in an open market without government subsidies and are too inefficient to meet the energy needs of the country alone as some suggest, and geothermal/hydroelectric plants cannot operate outside of specific areas.