Nuclear Weapons and Nuclear Energy
Nuclear weapons pose a health risk of the most serious kind to all species. Public health associations have stated that in the event of an intentional or unintentional discharge of these weapons, the casualties would run into the hundreds of thousands or millions. Reducing the stockpiles of nuclear weapons is a challenge and a goal for the twenty-first century.
Power-generating plants that use nuclear fuel also pose health problems. When nuclear power was first developed as an alternative to oil and coal, it was promoted as clean, efficient, inexpensive, and safe. In general, this has proven to be the case. Power systems in several parts of the world rely on nuclear power plants. However, despite all the built-in safeguards and regulating agencies, accidents in nuclear power plants do happen, many due to human error (as at Three Mile Island in the United States and Tokaimura in Japan), and the consequences of such accidents are far more serious than those of similar accidents in other types of power-generating plants. The 1986 fire and explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear power station in Ukraine caused hundreds of deaths and increased rates of genetic mutation and cancer; the long-term effects are not yet clear. The zone around Chernobyl could be unsafe for the next 24,000 years. In 2011, a 9.0 magnitude earthquake 15 miles below Japan’s
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Electromagnetic radiation. Electromagnetic radiation takes the form of waves that travel through space. The length of the wave determines the type of radiation: The shortest waves are high-energy gamma rays; the longest are radio waves and extremely low-frequency waves used for communication between aircraft, ships, and submarines. Different types of electromagnetic radiation have different effects on health.
Honshu Island, followed by a powerful tsunami, severely damaged the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant complex. It took nine months, until December, to stabilize and completely shut down the reactors.
An additional, enormous problem is disposing of the radioactive wastes these plants generate. They cannot be dumped in a sanitary landfill because the amount and type of soil used to cap a sanitary landfill are not sufficient to prevent radiation from escaping. Deposit sites have to be developed that will be secure not just for a few years but for tens of thousands of years longer than the total recorded history of human beings on this planet. To date, no storage method has been devised that can provide i nfallible, infinitely durable shielding for nuclear waste. Despite these problems, nuclear power is gaining favor again as an alternative to fossil fuels.
Medical Uses of Radiation
Another area of concern is the use of radiation in medicine, primarily the X-ray. The development of machines that could produce images of internal bone structures was a major advance in medicine, and applications abounded. Chest X-rays were routinely used to screen for tuberculosis, and children’s feet were even X-rayed in shoe stores to make sure their new shoes fit properly. But, as is often the case, this new technology had disadvantages. As time passed, studies revealed that X-ray exposure is cumulative and that no level of exposure is absolutely safe.
Early X-ray machines are no longer used because of the high amounts of radiation they give off. Each new generation of X-ray machines has used less radiation more effectively. From a personal health point of view, no one should ever have a “routine” X-ray examination; each such exam should have a definite purpose, and its benefits and risks should be carefully weighed.