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Real Science

Sources of energy

Michael Rosenthal

(12/2015) A few weeks ago, there was a knock on my door. The visitor was a gentleman selling solar panels for houses to produce electricity from the sun, replacing or supplementing the electricity provided by our local power company. As much as I admire and support the use of solar energy, I donít have the expertise to know whether this is a good idea for a house built without consideration of the factors that would make this change effective. It would have been, I think, excellent if the developer had made this option available to home builders and buyers by planning for it, offering the option, and incorporating the cost into the home purchase price. The risk seemed too great for me to gamble on.

Solar energy is becoming more widespread on a commercial basis. There are several large solar farms within driving distance of Emmitsburg. I would like to see some government support for solar energy use all over the country, but particularly in parts of the country that have a great deal of sunlight year-round.

The Kiplinger Letter in March 2015 reported good news on this topic. It reports that the use of solar power was up 100% in 2014 from the year before. It states that equipment and installation costs have fallen and will continue to fall, and that government subsidies are appearing on both federal and state levels. I think we will be seeing more and more use of solar power, and thatís a good thing.

Nuclear power is a topic that continues to be controversial. There are about 100 nuclear plants in the United States, and they provide a significant portion of the nationís energy needs. They release no greenhouse gases, and so they do not contribute to global warming. But those of us who remember the Three Mile Island event recognize that nuclear power is sometimes very scary.

I was living in the Hudson Valley of New York when the Three Miles Island scare took place on March 28, 1979. The Three Mile Island Unit 2, in Middletown, PA, on the Susquehanna River south of Harrisburg, had the most serious accident in U.S. commercial nuclear power operating history. The accident that occurred was a loss-of-coolant event, causing a reactor core to overheat. Fortunately, the containment building remained intact, and no radioactive material escaped the building. This was in contrast to the nuclear plant accidents at Chernobyl and Fukushima where much nuclear material was released to the environment. As a precaution, pre-school age children and pregnant women within a five-mile radius of the Three Mile Island plant were advised to leave the area by the governor of Pennsylvania and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) chairman.

The melting radioactive fuel, caused by overheating, created a hydrogen gas bubble in the dome of the pressure vessel. The NRC officials worried that the hydrogen bubble (hydrogen gas, H2, is extremely flammable and explosive) might burn or explode, and rupture the pressure vessel. This might cause a complete collapse of the building and the release of large amounts of radioactive substances to the surrounding community.

The good news is that within 48 hours it was determined the bubble would not explode, due to lack of oxygen, and the greatest danger was over.

I was active in community environmental work at the time, and one of my closest associates called me and told me that he had determined an evacuation route for our families which was least likely to be affected by airborne radioactive material. It was really scary!

The Three Mile Island event led to permanent changes in procedures in the nuclear industry and the NRC, reducing the risk to the public; however, the American public never quite felt the same about nuclear power reactors and living near them. The reactor in which the accident occurred was shut down. The second TMI reactor is still operating.

There are many nuclear power plants still operating in America, some in highly populated areas, but no other serious incidents have occurred. There is a nuclear power plant in the highly populated area of the New York Hudson Valley in Buchanan, NY, called Indian Point. This is a three unit nuclear power plant only 25 miles north of New York City. Not surprisingly, there has been a great deal of pressure to close this plant, whose licensing period ends soon. It is not yet clear if a new license will be issued by the NRC.

Finally, during this same period, when my family and I were living in the Hudson Valley, Consolidated Edison Power Company expressed interest in building a nuclear power plant only a few miles from Bard College, where we lived and worked. That plan was not carried out (whew!). There is a nuclear power plant at Calvert Cliffs in southern Maryland, near where I and my family lived when I worked at St. Maryís College of Maryland. To my knowledge they have not had any serious incidents.

Another issue with nuclear power is what do you do with nuclear waste, which remains dangerously radioactive for very long periods of time. We look for radioactive disposal sites in remote areas, but these materials remain dangerous for thousands of years. Is this a responsible thing to do?

Nuclear Power has many advantages as long as nothing goes wrong. The potential for disaster is there, due to the danger that radioactive material might be released to the air and water, such as we saw at Chernobyl and Fukishima. Thus, production of solar power looks better and better! So what do we conclude? The least environmentally impacting source of power is the sun. Therefore, we should be using solar generated power wherever we can.

Now for a bit of pseudoscience. Lutein is a chemical found in green leafy vegetables and is obtained by animals in their foods. It does seem to support good vision and eye health and offers support in discouraging age-related macular degeneration and perhaps cataract development as the eyes grow older. So, lutein is not a quack-invented invention made to make money.

However, an advertisement I saw recently in a magazine promotes a product that is a supplement containing this substance and claims it makes dramatic impact upon aging eyes. I recently had cataract surgery to reduce the effects of glare in night driving. This ad suggests that I could have done just as well taking large doses of this drug that includes lutein among "17 powerful nutrients." So, for $34.99 one can get a 30 day supply of this drug that, they assert, will solve oneís aging eye problems.

Editorís note: I make a point of not commenting on commentary, but as Nuclear Engineer who ran a reactor in a nuclear submarine, worked at TMI after the accident, and served as Inspector for the NRC at the India Point reactor, I canít help myself in this case. I feel quite comfortable with nuclear power Ė especially given all the downsides of all the other forms of power. And while I second the authorís support for solar power Ė the reality is you canít power a city on solar power. And for the record, when Indian Point was built, it was Ďout in the country.í The people that live around it now moved there fully knowing that the reactor was there. Unfortunately you just can pick up and move a nuclear power plant just because people move next to it ... Someday, when time permits, I'll write the inside story of nuclear power that you'll never read in the main stream media.

Michael is former chemistry professor at Mount. St. Marys

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