12 January 2007

Nuclear Power in Question

In the 80s and 90s, nuclear (fission) power was greatly shunned by the public, with many advocacy groups called a complete ban of it. This was partly due to the proliferation of nuclear weapons as well as several disastrous nuclear accidents.

In recent years, nuclear power is back in the limelight, not as the object of criticism but as a possible alternative to the growing energy crisis. Considering that it is clean (no carbon emission) and its fuel not running out any time soon, it looks more and more promising as an alternative candidate with the rising price of oil and environmental concern with coal (for example, a coal-burning power plant releases radioactive products into the air, exposing people to radiation several times more than a fission power plant). Other promising alternatives like solar and nuclear fusion are still not practical.

However, not all is smooth for nuclear power. The journal Nature carried a recent news article (obtained via Slashdot) that demonstrated past methods in disposing nuclear waste is not as safe as previously thought.

Quoting from the article,

A fast-moving alpha particle knocks into hundreds of atoms in its path, scattering them like skittles. Worse still, the radioactive atom from which the particle comes is sent hurtling in the other direction by the recoil. Even though its path is even shorter than that of an alpha particle, the atom is much heavier, and can knock thousands of atoms out of place in the ceramic.

All this disrupts the crystalline structure of the ceramic matrix, jumbling it up and turning it into a glass. That can make the material swell and become a less secure trap. Farnan says that some zircons that have been heavily damaged in this way by radiation have been found to dissolve hundreds of times faster than undamaged ones. So if the ceramic gets wet, there could be trouble.

There are, of course, other concerns, such as how one can lower the chances of nuclear accidents like the Three Mile Island accident. And then of course there's always the controversy linked to nuclear weapons. I cannot, however, comment from a technical point of view, since my course on Nuclear and Particle Physics has only started, but I guess that even after that, my knowledge is still too insufficient.

No comments: