Columns, Opinions

Reed ’21: The Hidden Dangers of Nuclear Energy

By
Staff Columnist
Friday, September 6, 2019

In civilization’s fervent search for alternatives to fossil fuels, nuclear energy has been the most promising. It produces more energy more efficiently — and with less carbon emissions — than solar, hydro and wind power. For many, nuclear power long seemed like the answer to the world’s energy concerns. But then came Three Mile Island in 1979, Chernobyl in 1986, Fukushima in 2011. With each new disaster, public opinion sours.

But time passes. And for the last few decades, making reactors safer to operate has been the primary focus of nuclear engineers. In fact, nuclear engineers have said that some of the newest generation of reactors, which will begin production in 2030, will be even walk-away-safe — that is, you could relinquish all control of the reactor, forever, without incident. Inevitably, and even perhaps in my lifetime, the threat of nuclear meltdowns will be a relic of a technologically feeble era. But that’s what scares me.

The increased safety of nuclear reactors threatens to obscure the inherent dangers of their very existence. And as fossil fuels continue their terminal decline toward extinction, countries currently not operating reactors will operate them in the future. As more nuclear material is produced and more reactors come online the risks of nuclear war or nuclear terrorism only increase.

Reactors require fuel — uranium, but not the kind you can dig out of the ground. Current nuclear reactors require uranium-235 (U-235), an isotope which accounts for 0.7 percent of the uranium you can mine. Reactors generally require between 3-5 percent U-235 in order to sustain a chain reaction. You get to that magic number by separating the U-235 isotope in a process called enrichment. Unfortunately, the processes and materials used to enrich uranium to the reactor-grade threshold are the same as those used to reach the weapons-grade-enrichment threshold — 90 percent, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency. 5 percent vs. 90 percent may seem like a massive gulf — but, unfortunately, once you’ve gone from 0.7 percent to 5 percent, you’ve already done about three-quarters of the work. Furthermore, one of the byproducts of producing energy from a nuclear reactor is, in part, plutonium-239, another material that can be used to make a nuclear weapon.

Now you can see the problem — “going green” through nuclear energy can be a wonderfully benign and even altruistic disguise for a weapons program. If you think I’m being overly pessimistic, this was exactly the cover story used when Iran tried to acquire the bomb in 2003, and when North Korea did acquire the bomb in 2006. It’s only a matter of time until another nation successfully turns their nuclear energy program into a weapons program. And as the use of nuclear energy becomes safer and cheaper and its use increasingly ubiquitous, we’re looking at a world where many more countries have, at the very least, capability to manufacture nuclear weapons. And when that happens, the probability of nuclear war increases. The chances of it happening in a given year may be small, but one day our luck is going to run out.

Moreover, as countries increasingly rely on nuclear energy, two other risks begin to materialize — nuclear theft and sabotage. In the late 1980s, the U.S. government seriously considered the possibility of a 9/11-style attack on a nuclear plant — at least seriously enough to ram a jet into a slab of reinforced concrete to simulate an attack on a nuclear reactor. Thankfully, the jet didn’t penetrate the wall. So, it seems, for the time being, U.S. reactors, which are housed in reinforced concrete containment buildings, are safe from such an attack. The problem is, these security measures are far from universal — there are many reactors currently in operation that are vulnerable to such an attack. And as nuclear energy becomes safer, at least some countries will probably continue to forgo the expense of such measures since the primary purpose of concrete containment structures is to contain potential leaks rather than prevent potential attacks, and these leaks are much less likely with new technological developments. Even today, should a terrorist decide to fly a plane into an unprotected nuclear reactor, the consequences could be Chernobyl-esque.

Finally, as more and more countries gain access to nuclear materials, the concern for theft grows exponentially. Currently, there’s no good way to recycle nuclear waste, so it must be stored for thousands of years before it is no longer radioactive. The United States alone spends billions of dollars each year protecting its radioactive materials from theft. But with all the capital we have spent on nuclear security, there have been numerous cases of security lapses and even theft in the past few decades — including one last year. In an instance in 2012, a group of Ocean’s Eleven wannabes, led by an 82-year-old nun, descended from the wooded hills surrounding the U.S.’s most secure nuclear complex, cut through a series of three chain-link fences and maneuvered undetected to within 20 feet of the uranium storage building. Lucky for them, the security cameras had been broken for months, and the complex’s new motion detection system had been setting off so many false alarms that the guards just stopped investigating them. Lucky for the rest of us, the intruders’ only desire was to spray paint Bible verses and smear human blood on the walls of the complex. This is perhaps the most striking example of security breakdown, but there are other, less cinematic instances of actual evildoers getting their hands on actual nuclear material, including an incident in 1995 in which a group of Chechen rebels stole a substantial quantity of caesium-137, wrapped it in conventional explosives and left it in a Moscow park. Fortunately, the bomb did not detonate.

Keep in mind, the concern here is not necessarily that a terrorist could themselves create a nuclear weapon. Though not impossible, there are considerable engineering challenges to doing so. Rather, the more immediate concern is a terrorist obtaining nuclear material, driving a truck filled with said material and conventional explosives into the middle of Manhattan, and detonating what is referred to as a “dirty bomb.” In doing so, they would disperse radioactive material across the city. A crude bomb of this form would, at the very least, cause extreme psychological chaos.

Many of the problems associated with nuclear technology remain unsolved and seem, for the time being, unsolvable. Technology can all but eliminate the risk of nuclear meltdowns, but the associated risks are intrinsic to the technology itself and only increase with the passage of time. It is up to us to decide if clean energy is worth a fully nuclear planet — if we are willing to trade energy for the chance that a terrorist flies a plane into a reactor or contaminates an entire city with a radioactive bomb. But once this technology spreads, there will be no reigning it in.

Andrew Reed can be reached at andrew_reed@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.