SXU Professors Condemn Nuclear Energy
In light of the nuclear crisis in Japan, two Saint Xavier University professors make the case to ban nuclear energy in Illinois and throughout the world
By Matt Klinkert Oak Lawn Patch April 3, 2011
On December 2, 1942, at the University of Chicago “Met” Lab, a team of 50 scientists harnessed the power of the sun.
They did so by building a chamber that held pressed uranium pellets above 10 layers of graphite, encased by bricks, wood and a tank-sized Goodyear balloon. The first nuclear reactor.
Though crude in design, the reactor allowed scientists to bombard uranium with neutrons, successfully splitting the atom and setting off the first nuclear-chain reaction in human history.
Fission, the scientists called it, under Amos Alonzo Stagg football field.
And though nuclear power has proliferated significantly since 1942, one thing remains the same for two professors at Saint Xavier University (SXU). Nuclear energy is terrible for society – a leading example of that, the nuclear crisis in Japan.
“We should circle every nuclear plant until they’re shut down,” said history professor Peter Kirstein during a forum March 25 to address Illinois’ relation to the crisis overseas. “It’s a problem that can’t be wished away.”
Along with Chemistry Chairwoman Sr. Frances Crean, Kirstein sited a plethora of safety and health issues as reasons to abandon nuclear energy not just in Illinois, but throughout the world.
The Crisis in Japan
Shortly after a massive earthquake and Tsunami hit the northeastern coast of Japan March 11, leaving at least 11,000 people officially dead or missing, the cooling system at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant shut down.
Since that day, over 170,000 people within in a 12.4 mile radius of the plant have been evacuated, due to increasing amounts of radiation in soil and sea water.
Iodine 131, a deadly byproduct of nuclear fuel that causes thyroid cancer, has already turned up in milk, broccoli, turnips, cabbage and other vegetables throughout the northeastern part of Japan, Kirstein said.
“The seriousness of radioactive material to the body has many factors to consider,” Kirstein added. “I don’t want to be quoted saying Japan will be evacuated, but I think the northeastern part of that country…will be a no-man zone for a long time.”
How did the Fukushima plant reach such a critical point?
Much like the first reactor in Chicago, the Japanese plant uses fission to produce nuclear energy; but the plant takes it much further by boiling cooling water into steam, which drives turbines and produces 6 percent of the country’s nuclear power, according to the World Nuclear Association.
Once the earthquake knocked out the cooling system, highly radioactive uranium rods spiked and created a hydrogen explosion in reactor No. 3, blowing the roof off the containment structure in reactor No. 1.
“Unlike atomic bombs,” Kirstein said, “nuclear reactors don’t explode with equivalent blast or heat.”
A nuclear meltdown, on the other hand, can release radiation with deadly long-term effects to the surrounding environment and population.
As of today, 50 plant workers are struggling through high levels of radiation to bring the cooling system for reactors 1-4 back online.
Workers sleep on desks, covered by sheets of lead, in an effort to avoid radiation.
“Some people may die from radiation disease several months after exposure,” Kirstein said. “Some may die well before that if they’re quite close.”
The plant, first commissioned in 1971, will be decommissioned once the reactors and cooling system are under control, said the Japanese government.
Progress at the Cost of Safety?
Currently, Japan gets 30 percent of its electricity from nuclear power, according to the nuclear association, which is expected to increase to 40 percent by 2017.
Along with Japan, the United States, France and Russia see nuclear power as the fuel of the future – a way to curb the environmental impact from oil and coal.
France, the world’s leading exporter of nuclear energy, gets 75 percent of its electricity from nuclear power.
Kirstein, however, compared nuclear energy to terrorism.
“I can’t on the one hand believe that Hiroshima was the single worst act of terrorism in the history of the world,” Kirstein continued, “and then believe that act in itself has disgraced my whole relationship with this country and say, ‘hey let’s go out there and let’s chill and have 105 nuclear reactors doing the same thing.”
Much like drug trafficking, he added, the world needs to “deal with the demand” for nuclear energy.
“I think we’re spoiled,” Crean said. “In my view, people should be more careful, and conserve.”
After signing the Kyoto Protocol in 2002, Japan now has 51 nuclear reactors, with two under construction and 12 more in the works.
The lights burn pretty bright in Illinois. “Nuclear Central,” Kirstein called it.
More than any other state, Illinois relies on nuclear power for 48 percent of its electricity, with six active nuclear plants in Braidwood, Byron, Clinton, Dresden, LaSalle and the Quad Cities on the Illinois-Iowa border.
“It is quite likely the electricity in the [forum room] is being generated by nuclear power,” Kirstein said, “using essentially the same processes as those in Japan.”
ComEd, the largest electricity provider in Illinois, derives 58 percent of its electricity from nuclear power, Kirstein added.
The biggest risk to the nuclear plants in Illinois are failures in the plants’ operating systems, he said, much like the Three Mile Island crisis in 1979 and Chernobyl meltdown in 1986.
“Seventy percent of the core was damaged [at Three Mile Island],” Kirstein said. “An explosion did take place inside the containment vessel, withstanding the blast.”
According to the nuclear association, the protection systems at Three Mile Island are now industry standards for nuclear plants worldwide.
“It took $1 billion to repair [the plant],” Kirstein noted. “Robots were used in the facility until the liquid had evaporated [14 years later].”
When asked by Patch if Illinois will experience an earthquake from the New Madrid Fault anytime soon, Kirstein responded, “I don’t know enough about that situation, but the predictions are that a major earthquake in Illinois is unlikely.”
According to the Division of Emergency Management in St. Charles County, MO, earthquakes 6.0 or greater on the Richter Scale occur about every 80 years along the New Madrid Fault; while earthquakes 7.5 or greater occur every 200-300 years, with the potential of damaging 20 or more states.
The last time an earthquake greater than 8.0 hit Illinois was in 1812, 200 years ago next year.
“Those who study earthquakes don’t know squat,” Kirstein said, “and they try to predict them, but they just can’t do it.”