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April 26, 2011


Arshad M Khan

Today, April 26, 2011, is the twenty-fifth anniversary of the nuclear disaster at
Chernobyl nuclear power station when one of the reactors exploded. A
safety experiment where the operators powered up the reactor went awry,
and the subsequent release of radiation affected an area not confined to the
then Soviet Union.

Now, in Ukraine, Chernobyl remains a problem. The sarcophagus is cracked,
crumbling and leaking. Water leaks in, is contaminated and leaks out. The
Ukranian government is asking for technical and financial assistance (about
$745 million) to repair; in fact, to cover over the present structure. But
money is not the only difficulty. While one can visit the area for short
periods, who is willing to work there for the extended length of time
necessary to construct another cover structure? Radiation levels are still
unsafe for long-term exposure.

In Fukushima, there is no solution in sight yet for the crucial problem.
Pressure vessel cooling system integrity has been compromised and
radioactive water is leaking. The operators have to continue to cool the fuel
and they are unable to fix the water leak.  Consequently tons of radioactive
water is being generated daily and storage is a problem. They are now
working on enlarging the system to include the leak, and pumping the water
back in.

In both places, the final containment structure must be built to last many
decades. Chernobyl needs to be re-covered after twenty-five years.
Fukushima, if and when under control, will pose a similar problem – both of
durability and the danger to workers, who will be sacrificing their health if
subjected to prolonged stays on site.

Even when a nuclear power station works without accident or failure, there
remains the problem of nuclear waste disposal.  No one has figured out a
completely satisfactory solution.  The French have been trying a vitreous
coating on the waste fuel pellets but it is expensive.  Here in the U.S., spent
fuel remains in the temporary on-site tanks because no State wants to be a
nuclear waste repository.  Storing the waste in dry casks is safer but more
expensive.  And after what happened at Fukushima, one can only hope it
stays safe.

More and more, nuclear power stations appear to be like dormant volcanoes:
one can enjoy the benefits – rich soil in the case of volcanoes, energy with
power stations – but one never knows when it can come to a climactic end.  
Earthquakes, tsunamis, human error, whatever the cause, the end result is
the same.  And as with volcanoes, the effects can be wide-ranging --
spreading beyond political boundaries not respected by nature.

We have now experienced Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, Fukushima, the
Alaska and the Gulf oil spills, etc., etc.  Is it time to take renewable energy
seriously?  If the twentieth century call was for 'a chicken in every pot',
perhaps the twenty-first can come to mean 'a solar collector on every roof'.