Is nuclear power too risky?

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Is nuclear power too risky?

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The story

Because of the chain of events that have taken place in Japan over the last week, the safety of nuclear power has again come into question.  As well as coping with the aftermath of earthquakes and a tsunami, the Japanese people have to deal with the possibility of dangerous radiation leaking from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant.
At the time of writing this, there is alarm as low levels of radiation move into Tokyo.

Already we are seeing a reaction to this around the world.  Switzerland has announced it is suspending plans to build new nuclear power stations and China is carrying out a safety check of its existing ones.  Are these knee-jerk reactions to the Japanese events or sensible ways of reducing risk?

Teaching ideas

To make this more relevant to your students, you can use what is happening in Japan and apply it to the UK or USA, both of which use nuclear power.  Students can be asked to think about the benefits and drawbacks of nuclear power and to decide how big the risk is to the general population and if it is a risk worth taking.

First you may wish to explain the difference between hazard and risk:

The hazard presented by a substance or activity is its potential to do harm (nuclear fission is a very hazardous procedure)
Risk from a substance or activity is the likelihood that it will cause harm in the circumstances of actual use or that the hazard will be realised (nuclear fission is of low risk if carried out in a nuclear power station monitored by trained people and the proper procedures are followed).

As an activity within a lesson on nuclear power, students could be asked to carry out a risk assessment on a nuclear power plant following the following steps:

1.  Identify the hazards associated with nuclear fission (meltdown, or hazards presented by problems of waste disposal leading to radiation exposure)

2.  Quantify the associated risk (How likely is that any hazard will be realised? How severe will the consequences be? How often does exposure to the hazard occur?)

3.  Identify who is at risk (workers and the public)

4.  Identify the control measures to be used to reduce the risk to a “reasonable” level (safety procedures within the power station such as the use of control rods, coolant and the emergency shutdown as was used with the Japanese power plants, evacuation of public if these fail and radiation leaks).

They should see that nuclear power plants usually present a low risk.  However, the events in Japan were caused by seismic activity so should countries at risk from this use nuclear power?  Is there a difference in the amount of risk from nuclear power in Japan and the UK?  Do they feel that countries which do not experience seismic activity should be reviewing their use of nuclear power? (Germany and Switzerland are examples of countries that are doing this in light of the events).

Even if the risk is small, the hazards associated with nuclear power can be catastrophic – they only have to look at the after-effects of Chernobyl to see this.  Even so, nuclear power is used extensively around the world to generate electricity.  They can look at the reasons why this is – the benefits of nuclear power.  The fact is that it provides cheap, reliable electricity and contributes no carbon emissions makes it an near- ideal energy resource.

The location of France's nuclear power stations

They might be also interested to know that the country with the second highest number of active nuclear power plants is our near-neighbour, France with 59 (second only to the USA with 104, Japan is third with 53). How do they feel about being this close to a country that relies so heavily on nuclear power and how worried are they about a potential incident in France?

If we wish to turn our backs on nuclear power – how will the short-fall be made up?  At the moment the only other power plants that can provide anywhere near the same amount of power as a nuclear power station are fossil fuel fired ones.  Students could look at the benefits and drawbacks of these and decide for themselves whether we should use them instead.   If the world starts to turn back to fossil fuels, carbon emissions will rocket. Are the risks of increasing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and the effects on climate change less than those from nuclear power?

The electricity calculator simulation from the BBC allows students to choose what energy resources they would choose for the UK in the future.  They can use to find out if we can generate enough power without using nuclear and the effects on carbon emissions and costs to consumers if they do.  As you can see from the image below,  My attempt at creating a country with no nuclear power resulted in carbon   emissions above target and an astronomical electricity bill.

Of course, in an ideal world there would be no need for nuclear or fossil fuel power stations as renewable would provide all of our electricity. However, at the moment only a quarter of the world’s electricity is produced in this way. Students can be asked to think about why this is.

Japan currently relies heavily on nuclear and fossil fuels for its electricity production

They could look at what energy resources Japan currently uses, research alternatives e.g. solar, wind power and write a letter to the Japanese government explaining how these methods work, where to locate them in the country and why they are good alternatives for fossil fuel burning and nuclear power stations.

So which side are you on:

Ditch nuclear power, or stick with it?


News story from the BBC.  Contains an animation that explain the events at Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in an accessible way.

This simulation from the BBC enables students to explore what impacts different options for the UK’s electricity supply in 2020 might have.

Excellent resource for students to research different energy resources.