Guest article by Dr. Helen Caldicott
As sustainability-conscious people, we know that nuclear power is just as much an enemy to our planet as climate change. But ironically, the two processes that create nuclear energy – fission and fusion – possess bone-chilling power in developing highly destructive nuclear weapons and produce vast amounts of toxic carcinogenic waste that must be isolated from the ecosphere for one million years, according to the EPA.
As a physician practicing global preventive medicine, I’ve spent much of my career studying the medical implications of both processes. Today, as our planet continues to be threatened by global warming and global extinction, I find that it is my humanitarian responsibility to prepare you for the potential apocalyptic scenarios caused by fission and fusion. The future of the planet at large depends on it.
The Humanitarian Cost of Fission and Fusion Nuclear Energy
Fission creates energy when a neutron hits a larger atom, forcing it to split into two smaller atoms and initiating a chain reaction. It’s a relatively simple and decades-old process of generating electricity in nuclear power plants, but it isn’t what it appears to be. In truth, these nuclear power plants (which are essentially atomic bomb factories) are far more dangerous than most realize them to be.
Using fission as a source of electrical generation within a power plant, a critical mass of fissile material like uranium 235 is brought together to create a chain reaction. The energy released by this chain reaction is used to boil water which creates steam which then turns a turbine to generate electricity. But the amount of radioactive elements generated in just one nuclear power plant is staggering. The original uranium fuel subject to fission becomes 1 billion times more radioactive in the reactor core. A thousand-megawatt nuclear power plant contains as much long-lived radiation as that produced by the explosion of one thousand Hiroshima-sized bombs.
And the process of fissioning uranium in nuclear reactors creates more than 200 new, man-made radioactive elements. Some live only seconds, while others remain radioactive for millions of years. This produces dangerous radioactive waste that can cause great harm to humans and all living organisms on the planet. Should there be an accident and a nuclear meltdown at a reactor, grave medical effects eventuate. Over one million people in Europe have died since Chernobyl from illnesses related to radioactive exposure in the air and food.
Every year, one-third of the intensely radioactive fuel rods must be removed from the reactor because they are so contaminated with fission products that they hinder the efficiency of electricity production.
These rods emit so much gamma radiation, like X-rays, that a person standing near a single spent fuel rod can acquire a lethal dose within seconds. But they are also extremely thermally hot and must be stored for thirty to sixty years in a heavily shielded building and continually cooled by air or water. If they are not so cooled, the zirconium cladding of the rod could become so hot that it would spontaneously burn, releasing its radioactive inventory. Finally, after an adequate cooling period, the rods must eventually be packed into a container by remote control.
Construction of these highly specialized containers uses as much energy as constructing the original reactor, which is 80 gigajoules per metric ton. To make matters worse, spent fuel packaging is an entirely new and relatively untested technology without operational data.
Fusion, on the other hand, is an entirely different beast altogether. Fusion occurs when two atoms combine to form a heavier atom, the same process that powers the sun. In other words, fusion creates massive amounts of energy. It’s widely believed throughout the industry that fusion can produce electrical energy, but this is a myth. Despite this, experts continue to experiment, hoping to make this complex process work.
The most recent example is the fusion experiment conducted as part of the Stockpile Stewardship Program (for testing nuclear weapons) at the Lawrence Livermore Labs (at the National Ignition Facility in California). It was praised as “one of the most impressive scientific feats of the 21st century” in the media because, for the first time, tritium and deuterium atoms were fused under powerful laser beams to produce the same type of energy powered by the sun. The problem? This process can have hazardous side effects that are being pushed aside for the sake of this extraordinary “scientific feat.”
First, it’s essential to know that enormous external electricity was required to produce a minute amount of energy during the experiment. The facility housing this experiment spanned the size of three football fields, and the fusion process induced all of the surrounding metal and concrete equipment to become highly radioactive. This process is obviously dangerous to the operating staff, and the highly radioactive equipment must be stored in a nuclear waste facility for years to come, causing more harm. Also, the process produces large quantities of tritium gas, which is highly carcinogenic.
Apart from endangering the operating staff, fusion energy has the distinct advantage of producing instantaneous nuclear weapons-grade plutonium. In summary, neither fission nor fusion has any viable future to provide electricity for humankind. However, renewable energy in the form of solar, wind, and geothermal is proceeding apace and is, by orders of magnitude, cheaper, safer, and cleaner than nuclear fission or fusion.
Dr. Helen Caldicott has devoted the last forty-two years to an international campaign to educate the public about the medical hazards of the nuclear age and the necessary changes in human behavior to stop environmental destruction. She calls it Global Preventive Medicine.
Dr. Caldicott was born in Melbourne, Australia, in 1938 and received her medical degree from the University of Adelaide Medical School in 1961. She founded the Cystic Fibrosis Clinic at the Adelaide Children’s Hospital in 1975. Subsequently, she was an instructor in pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and on the Children’s Hospital Medical Center, Boston, Mass. staff until 1980, when she resigned to work full time on preventing nuclear war.
Photo by Dan Meyers on Unsplash