Nuclear energy: Danger zone

By Richard Garwin (Image: Igor Kostin/Sygma/Corbis) Read more: “Instant Expert 32: Nuclear energy“ Even before the meltdown of the three reactor cores at Fukushima Daiichi, a nuclear renaissance was far from assured. In the US and Europe, any shift to nuclear had stalled more generally amid long-standing questions over safety, disposal of nuclear waste and the possibility that nuclear plants could generate material suitable for weapons Accidents involving the meltdown of a reactor core are unlikely, but when they do happen the consequences can be far-reaching. Two have directly led to loss of human life: the first in 1986 at the Chernobyl power plant in Ukraine and the second at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan in 2011. Nuclear fission is not like combustion, where the process is stopped by cutting off the fuel supply. Shut down a reactor in a nuclear power plant, and while the chain reaction ceases, radioactive decay carries on, emitting particles that produce dangerously high heat. Keeping the shut-down reactor cool would boil away 75 tonnes of water the first hour, 960 the first day. If the water supply fails, the resulting meltdown can lead to damage that exposes the reactor core. Effects on any one nearby would be dire. The International Atomic Energy Agency specifies that for a radiation worker,
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