S. Frances Crean, RSM, chemistry professor and Peter N. Kirstein on Japan’s nuclear crisis and the future of nuclear power. Story appeared in the March 30, 2011 issue of The Beverly Review.
Concerns on nuclear power discussed at SXU forum
by Caroline Connors
The growing crisis at the damaged Fukushima nuclear reactors in Japan demonstrates that the use of nuclear energy in the United States is too dangerous.
That was the opinion of a history professor speaking at a forum held on March 25 at St. Xavier University.
Peter Neil Kirstein, a professor in the Department of History and Political Science, took part in the one-hour presentation at the school’s Mt. Greenwood campus along with Sister Frances Crean, RSM, acting chairperson of SXU’s Department of Chemistry. Crean discussed the science of nuclear reactors and explained fission and how nuclear energy is generated.
Kirstein expressed his views on nuclear power relative to the current situation in Japan, considered to be the world’s most dangerous atomic crisis in 25 years. The Fukushima plant was damaged on March 11 by an earthquake and tsunami, resulting in soaring radiation levels and fear of a meltdown if overheating fuel rods cannot be contained.
The advancing age of nuclear power plants in the U.S. is a concern for many people, Kirstein said. After the first nuclear reactor was built at the University of Chicago in 1942, nuclear power plants began to appear throughout the U.S. in the 1950s. The average age of U.S. nuclear power plants is now 30 years old; in comparison, the Fukushima plant is 40 years old, he said.
According to Kirstein, the U.S. relies on nuclear power for 20 percent of its electricity, which is generated by 105 reactors at 65 nuclear facilities. In Illinois, 48 percent of electricity is generated by nuclear power at six plants— Braidwood, Byron, Clinton, LaSalle, Dresden and Quad Cities—some of which are approximately 40 to 50 miles from Chicago.
The threat of unintended release of radiation tops Kirstein’s reasons for opposing nuclear power, he said.
“Many victims of radiation released from a nuclear reactor are not confined to power plant workers, but also to innocent civilians who live down wind from a potential release,” he said.
According to Kirstein, the Chernobyl nuclear accident in Ukraine in 1986 led to 6,000 cases of thyroid cancer in children, and Japan has already reported dangerous levels of radiation in milk, broccoli, cabbage, turnips, parsley and spinach in the northeast part of the country as far as 150 kilometers from the Fukushima reactor.
“In Tokyo, iodine has been found in tap water and has been considered too dangerous for infants to drink. … The Environmental Protection Agency reported miniscule quantities in Sacramento of Xenon 133; in Seattle, so-called miniscule traces of radiation have been detected from the Fukushima plant,” Kirstein said.
The difficulty in storing spent fuel, or nuclear waste, is also a problem, Kirstein said. The half life (the time it takes for a substance undergoing decay to decrease by half) of Uranium 235 (the byproduct of nuclear energy) is 700 million years, he said.
“Basically it is here forever,” he said. “The amount of spent fuel rods will always increase; it won’t decrease. It can’t be tossed into a landfill. As each of the 442 nuclear reactors worldwide in 30 countries continues to produce electricity, it will add to the waste disposal problems of spent nuclear fuel.”
Currently, more than 80 percent of the spent nuclear fuel in Illinois remains in pools of water on site, which heightens the possibility of acts of terror on nuclear reactor sites, Kirstein said.
Nuclear power is also expensive, Kirstein said. Citing a March 16, 2011, report in the Washington Post, Kirstein said that nuclear power is about 30 percent more expensive than is coal or gas-fired electricity, mainly because a nuclear power plant can cost more than $5 billion to build.
Given the negatives, Kirstein is wary of perpetuating the future of nuclear energy, he said.
“It is true that more nuclear power does mean less coal; it is true that more nuclear power does mean less dependence on fossil fuels; but unless we’re going to put nuclear reactors in our cars, unless we’re going to put nuclear reactors in our semis, I wonder how much more nuclear energy will actually mean less oil and less so-called energy dependence,” he said. “I would rather live in a world without fission, without nuclear reactors, without anything associated with splitting the atom for purposes of bombs or energy.”
A question-and-answer session followed the forum, which was attended by approximately 50 audience members, many of them SXU students. Several attendees questioned the scientific and ethical viability and sustainability of nuclear power and other energy sources, including wind and hydropower, and questioned the U.S.’s dependency on electricity to support its high-tech habits.
While neither Crean nor Kirstein provided truly definitive answers to the questions raised, the forum prompted lively and thoughtful discussion. In conclusion, Kirstein reiterated his opposition to nuclear power in light of the unfolding saga at the Fukushima plant in Japan.
“I’m not a scientist; I’m a historian. But I think it is quite possible that for areas of that country it’s over; there won’t be people living there,” Kirstein said. “We’ll see how it turns out.”