Sunday, March 20, 2011

A case for building sturdier nuclear power plants.


A case for building sturdier nuclear power plants.

The 8.9 Richter earthquake of 11 march 2011 afternoon and subsequent tsunami which devastated most of Japan has raised before the world a moral and scientific poser on the issue of safety of nuclear plants. The Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power plant has since become a cause for concern because of fears of a nuclear meltdown and leakage of radiations from the reactor owing to a failure of the designed cooling system. The fission reactor (Mark 1 type) has a design which has been debated upon on account of safety for over 40 years now. This type of reactor, despite the design concerns, is widely used in the production of electricity all over the world including the US and India.

A debate seems to be raging against the production of energy using nuclear methods. Let us consider the other options we have before us to generate power. One, there are coal based thermal power plants which burn hydrocarbon fuel to generate electricity. This leads to the greenhouse effect – the main reason behind global warming and other environmental issues, for instance, the deterioration of ecology of a particular area. Two, there are hydro electric plants that generate electricity not by transforming water into steam but by making use of raw water power to run turbines. However, this method of power generation requires massive investments followed by long gestation periods and abundant supply of water in rivers / streams. Topography of the region also matters. The mountainous regions have a better chance of harnessing the potential of free flowing water contrary to the plains where only small scale plants could be set up. Three, solar and wind power, which are widely referred to as renewable sources of energy, are considered the cheapest, the most reliable and the cleanest way of producing electric power. But the technology and the infrastructure required for this is still in nascent stages of development and to expect such ventures to cater to the exponential increase in the demands for energy, particularly in larger and populous countries, would tantamount to wishful thinking, at least for the present. Again, like water streams in mountainous regions, wind energy can only be harnessed in the coastal areas. Solar Energy production also faces a drawback as the Sun may not be shining uniformly in all weathers so as to recharge and keep the photo-voltaic cells running.

Nuclear energy holds the promise and capability of fulfilling our energy needs in all weathers, at all locations and under all conditions. Unfortunately, there have been instances of serious accidents and disasters at the nuclear facilities the world over including the US, the erstwhile USSR and now the technologically very advanced, Japan. What to do then? Does that mean we abandon the nuclear plants and put a cap on setting up of the ones for the future? Certainly not. On the contrary, by learning from the failures we ought to be thinking in terms of designing sturdier and safer plants. As a measure of safety every nuclear plant built anywhere in the world should have a close  as well as a stand by alternative that could be activated in the wake of an emergency so as to bury and plug the critical portion of the plant where radiations could emit in case of an accident or a malfunction.

Running away from a problem or avoiding risks is no solution particularly when it is related to energy and environmental matters. Weighing everything in dollars or business terms is not going to solve the energy issues. Yes, the environment is a big concern and so is the security and safety of mankind but in order to curb that we need scientific advancements and innovations, not abandonment.

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