Curiosity Project: Materials Science Pictures
Curiosity Project: Materials Science Pictures

Chernobyl accident radiation

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The 1927 song "Fifty Million Frenchmen Can't Be Wrong" celebrated France's free spirit. But can it also be applied to the country's dedication to and acceptance of nuclear power? After all, in 2007, 59 nuclear power plants scattered throughout the country, which is smaller than Texas, generated 78 percent of France's electricity [source: Schneider]. Among other reasons, the French have turned to nuclear power because it provides both jobs and power to a country that has little to no natural energy resources.

That pronuclear power feeling seems to have crossed the Atlantic, as President Obama approved $8 billion worth of loan guarantees to build new reactors; plans are also under way to begin mining for uranium in Colorado [source: Hessler]. This would've been unheard of 30 years ago, when Three Mile Island -- site of a 1979 core meltdown in Pennsylvania -- turned public sentiment against nuclear power. Less than 10 years later, that perception was reinforced by the former Soviet Union's Chernobyl disaster of 1986. It's probably no coincidence, then, that when cartoonist Matt Groenig created "The Simpsons" in the 1980s, he made its resident buffoon Homer Simpson not only an employee of a nuclear power plant, but its safety inspector.

With increased financial commitment to nuclear energy and a deal with French nuclear manufacturer Areva to build a Clean Energy Park in Fresno, Calif., signs point to the potential for the United States to build more nuclear reactors in the coming years. Do those plans pose a threat to our environment, as well as our own personal safety? Can 50 million Frenchmen actually be wrong?

Here are a couple of the points in favor of nuclear power: It steers clear of fossil fuels, releases less radioactivity than coal-fired power plants and is unaffected by the ups and downs of oil and gas prices [source: Hvistendahl]. With 440 reactors worldwide, only one -- Chernobyl -- has been classified as a "major accident" by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) [sources: Biello, World Nuclear Association]. And aside from Chernobyl, no one, from nuclear workers to the general public, has ever died from radiation exposure due to a commercial nuclear reactor incident [source: PBS Frontline]. That said, Chernobyl led to a 250 percent spike in congenital birth deformities, according to a 1995 United Nations report.

Indeed, the Chernobyl disaster caused physicists and engineers to take a second look at their approach to nuclear power plants. As the Iron Curtain went down, so too did the government secrets that shrouded nuclear facilities. The World Association of Nuclear Operators (WANO) facilitates the exchange of information and ideas from East to West. Similarly, the IAEA was set up to "legally commit participating States operating land-based nuclear power plants to maintain a high level of safety by setting international benchmarks to which States would subscribe" [source: World Nuclear Association].

One giant, unanswered problem of nuclear power is what to do with nuclear waste. We produce about 2,200 tons (2,000 metric tons) yearly, with nowhere safe to put it. Currently, the nuclear industry stores the waste in massive concrete structures. France eventually plans to store its nuclear waste far underground, digging tunnels into 150-million-year-old rock [source: Butler]. For now, the waste has to be protected to prevent the materials from falling into the wrong hands.

In addition, because nuclear power relies on uranium, it's not a renewable source of energy -- it doesn't naturally renew itself like wind or sunlight. So perhaps those 50 million Frenchmen eventually will look next door to Spain, one of the leading countries for wind turbine production, for alternative methods to keep their country powered [source: Keeley].