The problems seen at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear complex in the wake of Japans magnitude-9 earthquake and tsunami should not dissuade other nations from using nuclear power as long as they follow the safety regulations.
That was the consensus of a panel discussion at Mondays International Forum, held in Farber Hall at the University of South Dakota.
The panel members were asked whether the United States could continue to expand its use of nuclear power as its energy needs increase.
I think if we follow the regulations on a regular basis then it should be fine, said Dr. Donming Mei, professor of nuclear physics at USD.
However, earth science and physics professor Dr. Tim Heaton pointed out that those same regulations may also prove to be a block against expansion.
There are so many regulations with nuclear power now, its one of the more expensive ways of generating electricity, he said. But I think it has a place in the mix. It all comes down to the human factor.
Mei concurred, saying there are more than 400 nuclear reactors throughout the world, with a cumulative 14,000 reactor-years. Thus far, there have been three major reactor incidents Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima which he said occurred at a rate 20 times higher than one would anticipate based on safety factors.
They occurred not as the result of a flaw in the design of the reactors, Mei said, but because of human error.
In 1990, a report by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission issued a report outlining a scenario much like the one now facing Fukushima.
The U.S. agencies pointed out that Japan could have this kind of disaster 20 years ago. Tokyo Electric did not take that consideration seriously, Mei said. It was not the fault of the Japanese government. Thats human error.
The problem, Mei said, is that the company wanted to make more money, and taking all the safety recommendations into account would limit its ability to do so.
Heaton said the occurrence of nuclear disasters in the past has aided the United States in preventing them from happening in the future.
One of the things we learned from Three Mile Island is that operators are often not prepared for certain things, and miss key pieces of information, he said.
As a result, nuclear technicians now undergo intensive training, with drills and mock-ups held on a regular basis, he said.
They throw problems at each other and see how they react. Theyre really on their toes, Heaton said.
The reactors at Fukushima are boiling water reactors, which Heaton termed the simplest type of nuclear reactor.
You have a containment vessel with the fuel. Basically, fission generates heat, and you have water within a reservoir, and that water is boiled into steam, the steam is let out the top, which turns a turbine to generate electricity, he said.
Nuclear plants are constructed with different levels of containment, so they would be able to withstand the pressure caused by a natural or manmade disaster without leaking any of the water, he said.
If water should leak out of any of these systems, theres enough heat just from the radioactivity to melt the pellets and just completely lose control of the reactor, Heaton said.
As workers would no longer be able to use tools such as cranes to remove the fuel within the water, he added, Your only option would be to cement the whole plant in and keep people away from it for a few hundred years.
According to the Associated Press, officials at Fukushima have acknowledged there was radioactive water in all four of the complexs most troubled reactors, with readings of airborne radiation high enough as to prevent emergency workers from getting inside to pump out the water.
Government spokesman Yukio Edano was quoted as saying that some of the radioactive water is almost certainly seeping from a damaged reactor core in one of the units.
Heaton and Mei each discussed the pros of using nuclear power, calling it a significant fuel source.
An apparently small amount of fuel can produce a huge amount of energy. A tiny pellet of uranium is equal to 50 barrels of oil, Heaton said.
He also emphasized the safety involved, stating that plants cannot become atomic bombs as they use only slightly-enriched uranium.
Mei pointed out that 20 percent of the electricity used in the United States is derived through nuclear power, making it the biggest user in the world.
We cannot lose 20 percent of our electricity. Where are you going to go to replace that? Mei said. So the safety measures must be implemented. Otherwise well have a disaster.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.