There’s more than Chernobyl and Three Mile Island

One of the classes I teach at the University of Minnesota is a course on Technology and Public Ethics. In this class we attempt to uncover some of the social and ethical issues surrounding technology. In some cases technology is a solution to a social dilemma and in other cases it creates or contributes to the dilemma. One topic we look at is the production, transmission and consumption of energy. In the study of society and ethics cut and dried answers are few and far between, such is the case for nuclear power.

While nuclear power has traditionally been viewed with disdain because of a lack of understanding about how it works, the dangers involved and the question of nuclear waste it is again being discussed as a power production option as we become more concerned with the causes and effects of global warming, specifically carbon emissions such as those from traditional power generation sources. In the end nuclear power may provide an important supplement to renewable energy sources in combating the problem of carbon emissions. Before arriving at a conclusion like that it would be important to understand concerns surrounding nuclear power. For the most part these center on the potential for disasters and nuclear waste. While many people have heard of the Three Mile Island incident in the United States and the Chernobyl incident in the Ukraine (see this posting) these are certainly not the only incidents on record.

Two incidents that took place much earlier in the history of nuclear reactors were the Windscale (U.K.) and SL-1 (U.S.) incidents. Thanks to the web you can read about these incidents from several sources:

In addition to these reactor incidents there have been many incidents or close calls in research laboratories which, while they do not generally pose a significant threat to the general public, are dangerous for those in the immediate vicinity.

There is also the question of what to do with nuclear waste. One might argue that a sound policy is the reprocessing of nuclear waste into less harmful and more useful/reusable isotopes and while this has been met with success in Europe it is not currently policy or procedure in the United States where indefinite storage is used. The current plan is for waste to be housed deep underground at Department of Energy storage facilities (Yucca Mountain and WIPP). One of the challenges posed by this plan is a desire to warn future generations of the potential hazards in these locations when all current languages might be lost. This article explains some of the proposed solutions for just this problem.

Comments are closed.