March 29, 2010

Two student readings and discussion questions examine the safety of nuclear energy as well as the wider debate about the pros and cons of nuclear energy.

To the Teacher:

On March 11, 2011, a 9.0 magnitude earthquake struck off the coast of Japan, unleashing a devastating tsunami. In addition to causing widespread destruction and thousands of deaths in Japan, the natural disaster set off a crisis at the Fukushima nuclear power plant in the north of the country. The ongoing emergency at the plant has thrust the decades-old debate about the safety of nuclear power back into the public spotlight. As the Japanese disaster demonstrates, nuclear power plants are not immune to the effects of natural disasters. Moreover, there is significant debate about whether producing energy through nuclear fission presents other risks, even absent a major catastrophe.
This lesson is designed to help students better understand the debate over nuclear energy production that is taking place in the aftermath of the earthquake in Japan. The exercise consists of two student readings and discussion questions. The first reading examines questions about the safety of nuclear energy raised by the crisis in Japan. The second reading explores the wider debate about nuclear energy and the environment - including whether this energy source should be considered part of a green, renewable alternative to fossil fuels.

Student Reading 1: 

Is Nuclear Energy Safe?

The recent earthquake and tsunami that ravaged Japan have left more than 10,000 people dead and more than 17,000 people missing. The disaster also touched off a crisis at the Fukushima nuclear power plant, an emergency that Japanese authorities and plant officials are still struggling to contain. In the United States, news of this unfolding crisis has thrust the debate about the merits of nuclear energy production back into the public spotlight.
Most people know very little about how nuclear power plants function. Nuclear power works by harnessing the extreme heat that radioactive materials can generate. This heat is used to boil water or otherwise create high pressure that can rotate a turbine. The turbine, in turn, creates electricity. The radioactive elements needed for this process - either uranium-235 or plutonium-239 - are housed in a reactor. Many plants, including the Fukushima facility, contain more than one reactor so that they can generate more electricity. Inside of the reactor core are the radioactive elements, as well as "control rods" which manage the rate of the nuclear reaction and water coolant that keeps the reactor from overheating and melting. (http://www.ucsusa.org/nuclear_power/nuclear_power_technology/how-nuclear...)
In Japan, the earthquake and tsunami on March 11, 2011, knocked out power to the control and cooling systems of three of the Fukushima facility's six reactors. As a result, the reactors experienced partial meltdowns before plant workers could begin emergency procedures to cool them by pumping seawater into the reactor containment buildings.
A meltdown is considered a serious event because it can result in the release of radioactive material into the environment—and in this case, it did. To relieve some of the growing pressure in the containment vessels, engineers vented steam into the environment. While this steam contained radioactive material, it was carried away by prevailing winds and experts do not believe it presented a serious health risk to people. (http://www.ucsusa.org/assets/documents/nuclear_power/explaining-japan-nu...) Nevertheless, on March 15 the Japanese government ordered all people living within 20 kilometers of the plant to evacuate. Additional concerns have arisen as officials have struggled to manage the still-dangerous facility. Abnormally high and potentially unsafe levels of radioactive iodine have been found in the area's water supply. (http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/mar/23/tokyo-water-unsafe-infants)
On March 25, Japanese nuclear safety officials expressed fears that one of the nuclear reactor cores had cracked, potentially causing a leak of high levels of radiation. Thus far, however, there is no evidence that the crisis has resulted in dangerous levels of exposure to anyone except the plant's workers. (http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/mar/25/japanese-nuclear-fear-crack-...)
This emergency has reopened a debate about nuclear power that has simmered for as long as we have had nuclear power plants. The controversy became very heated after two other major nuclear power crises. In 1979, a major disaster was narrowly averted at the Three Mile Island facility in Middletown, Pennsylvania. There, a mechanical failure and human error combined to cause a partial meltdown of one of the plant's cores. Twenty employees of the plant were treated for mild radiation exposure and no radiation was reported to have leaked outside of the containment facility. If a full meltdown had occurred, the effects could have been catastrophic.
In 1986, human error and a faulty design again combined at the Chernobyl plant in the Ukraine, this time causing the single most catastrophic nuclear energy-related event in history. The full-scale meltdown at Chernobyl plant forced a city of over 300,000 people to be evacuated and resettled permanently, and it also resulted in many deaths. The International Atomic Energy Agency had maintained that radioactive fallout from Chernobyl caused 4,000 extra cancer deaths. But in 2006, on the 20th anniversary of the disaster, the environmental organization Greenpeace released a report concluding that the disaster could result in as many as one million cancer cases, nearly 100,000 of them fatal. (http://www.greenpeace.org/international/en/news/features/chernobyl-death...)
Although these two incidents are the most famous, there have been many other smaller incidents that have not received as much news coverage. As Bob Herbert wrote in the New York Times in July 2010, since Three Mile Island, a number of plants have been shut down in the U.S. due to safety concerns:
There are already plenty of problems on the nuclear power front, but they don't get a great deal of media attention. David Lochbaum, the director of the Nuclear Safety Project for the Union of Concerned Scientists, told me last week that there have been 47 instances since 1979 in which nuclear reactors in the US have had to be shut down for more than a year for safety reasons. (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/20/opinion/20herbert.html)
Supporters of nuclear energy respond that, despite facing an epic natural disaster, Japanese officials have so far managed to control problems at the nuclear power plant, that no deaths have yet resulted at Fukushima, and that any exposure to the public may be kept below levels that would cause serious health problems. They argue that the response to the disaster illustrates that nuclear energy is fundamentally safe and that the subsequent public backlash is based more on fear than on reason. Sir David King, director of the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment, writes in the British Telegraph:
Of the 60 Japanese nuclear reactors, 16 felt the impact of the earthquake strongly enough to be affected. All of these went impeccably into automatic shutdown - even the reactors at Fukushima....[N]uclear power is even safer than we thought. Why, then, has Germany suspended a plan to extend the lives of its nuclear power stations, and the Chinese government placed a temporary halt on approvals? Why, indeed, has the European Energy Commissioner said that we need to ban nuclear power across Europe, as if our inland reactors were at risk from tsunamis? And why is the American public stockpiling iodine tablets? These reactions were based on panic, not science. (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/earth/energy/8399150/Panic-is-the-main-risk-w...)
Given that problems have continued to emerge at the Fukushima plant following the publication of King's assessment, critics would contend that public concern cannot be so easily dismissed. Until the reactors at the Fukushima plant are fully cooled and any leaks fully contained, we will not be able to gauge the complete measure of the crisis there. But, given that radioactive waste produced by nuclear power plants can remain toxic for tens of thousands of years, it is certain that the debate about nuclear power will continue for the foreseeable future.
For discussion:
1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?
2. What are the main concerns surrounding safety at nuclear power plants?
3. Do you think that the safety risks associated with nuclear power are acceptable ones? What arguments do you find convincing? Would you feel safe living near a nuclear power plant?
4. Did you have an opinion about nuclear power before the situation in Japan? Has the Japanese disaster changed your opinion about nuclear power?
5. Most past emergencies with nuclear power have been contained. Some believe that this suggests that nuclear energy can be safely used. Others believe that these close calls demonstrate the risk of an unacceptable catastrophe. What do you think?
6. Given the widespread death and destruction caused by the earthquake and tsunami, some people believe that too much attention has been paid to the nuclear issue and not enough to disaster relief for the Japanese people in general. Do you agree or disagree?

Student Reading 2: 

Is Nuclear Energy "Green" Energy?

Another part of the debate about nuclear power concerns the issue of global climate change. Global warming is caused by the release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. A major source of carbon dioxide emissions is coal-fired power plants. Those who are concerned about global warming argue that to end dependence on coal, we need to both conserve energy and move towards cleaner forms of energy production. Different environmentalists and scientists debate whether nuclear power should be a part of a greener energy future.
Currently, nuclear power accounts for approximately 20 percent of the United States' energy production, and other countries rely on it for an even greater portion of their energy. Because energy production at a nuclear plant releases little carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, some view it as a positive alternative to coal.
President Obama, for instance, has mentioned nuclear energy in the context of his support for alternative and "green" energy sources. During the summer 2007 Democratic presidential debate he said, "I actually think that we should explore nuclear power as part of the energy mix." Critics point out that Obama has received $227,000 in campaign contributions from employees and executives of America's largest nuclear power provider, Exelon, and therefore has a vested interest in promoting the industry. (http://www.nytimes.com/2008/02/03/us/politics/03exelon.html?_r=2)
Patrick Moore, a long-time environmentalist who shifted from opposing nuclear power to supporting it, wrote in the Washington Post in 2006:
[N]uclear energy may just be the energy source that can save our planet from another possible disaster: catastrophic climate change. More than 600 coal-fired electric plants in the United States produce 36 percent of US emissions — or nearly 10 percent of global emissions — of CO2, the primary greenhouse gas responsible for climate change. Nuclear energy is the only large-scale, cost-effective energy source that can reduce these emissions while continuing to satisfy a growing demand for power. And these days it can do so safely. (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/04/14/AR200604...)
However, opponents of nuclear energy as a green solution believe that its fundamental risks far outweigh its potential positive benefits. Among those risks: radioactive waste. A typical nuclear reactor produces about 27 tons of spent nuclear fuel each year. Although the radioactivity of this waste diminishes with time, it takes thousands of years of radioactive decay for spent nuclear fuel to no longer pose a threat to public health. Most US nuclear plants store the waste on site, which is not a permanent solution. Where to permanently store this extremely hazardous material is an unsolved problem in the US and other countries.
Following the earthquake in Japan, Kumi Naidoo, executive director of Greenpeace International, wrote in the New York Times that "Nuclear Energy Isn't Needed." He argued:
Greenpeace and the European Renewable Energy Council have put together a study called "Energy [R]evolution," which clearly shows that a clean energy pathway [without nuclear power] is cheaper, healthier and delivers faster results for the climate than any other option. This plan calls for the phase-out of existing reactors around the world and a moratorium on construction of new commercial nuclear reactors.
Furthermore, an energy scenario recently produced by the conservative International Energy Agency highlights the fact that nuclear power is not necessary for lowering greenhouse gas emissions. It shows that even if existing nuclear power capacity could be quadrupled by 2050, the proportion of energy that it provided would still be below 10 percent globally. This would reduce carbon dioxide emissions by less than 4 percent. The same amount of money, invested in clean, renewable energy sources such as wind and solar could have a much greater impact on lowering global warming.
Nuclear energy is an expensive and deadly distraction from the real solutions.
For discussion:
1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?
2. Why do some environmentalists support nuclear power?
3. How would you weigh the risks of global climate change against the possible hazards associated with nuclear power? Which do you think is the greater concern?
4. President Obama supports nuclear power but has also received money from the nuclear power industry. Do you think this affects his credibility on the issue?
5. Supporters of nuclear power argue that eliminating it as an energy source would require us to use far less power that we do currently. Would you be willing to reduce energy consumption in your own life in order to reduce our commitment to nuclear power?

For further inquiry:

Nuclear Plants Near You

Students interested in doing further research might be encouraged to investigate whether nuclear plants are operating near where they live and to explore any relevant debates surrounding those facilities. There are 104 nuclear power plants currently in operation in the United States. While they are concentrated heavily on the East Coast and in the Midwest (where the population density is highest and where the nuclear energy industry is strongest), there are plants all over the country.
The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission provides a map of plant locations, available on-line at:
The Union of Concerned Scientists has created a similar interactive map, which also includes information about safety concerns at various nuclear plants across the country. It is available online at:
This lesson was written for TeachableMoment.Org by Mark Engler with research assistance by Eric Augenbraun.
We welcome your comments. Please email them to: lmcclure@morningsidecenter.org.