With the coming of the atomic age, mankind had discovered the means to yield enormous amounts of energy from the splitting of atoms. This has been both a curse and blessing, with the advent of both the atomic bomb and nuclear power plant, and the fear of deadly radiation from using either. Although nuclear power plants are an excellent source of energy, the inherit dangers can often outweigh the benefits, and a meltdown can be catastrophic for the environment and everything in it.
A meltdown occurs when a reactor is unable to sufficiently cool its fuel source for whatever reason, and the fuel melts and escapes its containment. This fuel contains plutonium, which is an extremely radioactive element, 1000 times more radioactive than highly enriched uranium, and can leech into the environment during a meltdown, causing deadly contamination in a wide radius around the reactor.
The reason plutonium is so deadly is that not only is it highly radioactive and hard to detect, the most common isotope in nuclear fuel, plutonium-239, has a half-life of 24000 years, meaning that only half of the plutonium released due to a meltdown would have decayed in that long time span. Wind and water can carry this poisonous material over large distances, exposing a huge area to the dangerous isotope over time as it settles into the soil and contaminates vegetation and water supplies.
When plutonium is ingested through contaminated food or water, it is deposited in bones and organs such as the liver, and the alpha radiation it emits damages cells. This cell damage can lead to mutations which cause cancer, as well as a deterioration of health in general from organs not working at top condition. An inhaled amount of 27 micrograms has been extrapolated from animal studies to humans as a deadly concentration, leading to almost certain lung cancer.
The most recent occurrence of a reactor meltdown that has lead to plutonium being released into the environment was that of Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi power plant, which was damaged during a tsunami caused by a 9.0-magnitude earthquake on March 11. The cooling systems were damaged during this event leading to release of radiation including plutonium, and the evacuation of people from a 30km radius around the plant. Plutonium from the Chernobyl meltdown in 1986 can be found far away from where the incident occurred in countries such as Sweden and it is possible the plutonium from Japan could travel far.
Given the dangers of natural disasters, and terrorism, and the possibility of a simple error or malfunction all leading to a meltdown of any of the nuclear power plants operating around the world, it is vital that safety is kept at the highest possible level, and stringent guidelines are met for preventing the release of radiation. Nuclear power plants aren’t likely to disappear, but with time they are likely to become safer, as long as they are given the respect such a dangerous tool deserves.