A blog explaining science and technology through the movies ... or explaining the movies through science and technology, depending on the point of view. English is not my first language, so I apologize for the mistakes you are likely to find in the posts

Friday, October 06, 2006

The Simpsons, Jane Fonda and Meryl Streep against nuclear power

The sight of Springfield town is eclipsed by the huge nuclear power station where Homer Simpson works. It has a worrying look due to its large cooling towers. These, though, are completely harmless in spite of its enormous size. Smoke coming from them is made of non-polluting water vapor. Its function consists of cooling the steam coming out of the nuclear reactor so that it can start its cycle all over again: coming into the reactor with a low temperature, getting warm and moving a turbine to produce electricity. The steam is cooled either by water coming from a river or, in a more simple way, by atmospheric air. The size of the cooling towers is huge, and bigger at the base than at the uppert part, so that air flows cooling the water, just like in a chimney: the higher it is and the more its section gets reduced from bottom to top, the better it works.

Of course, even if these dreadfully looking towers (that exist in no nuclear power stations as well) are harmless, that doesn’t mean nuclear power isn’t dangerous. It doesn’t pollute atmospheric air directly, and that’s the reason why it was introduced at first as a ‘clean’ energy compared to toxic gases produced in power plants getting electricity from burning coal or oil. Nevertheless, the process taking place at a nuclear reactor is actually a controlled atomic explosion. If, because of a failure in the security system, the chain reaction couldn’t be stopped, the catastrophe produced would be much worse than that of Chernobyl, which consisted ‘only’ of a leak of radioactive material with the very serious consequences we all know well.

Above all this, even with the process taking place in ‘secure’ conditions, the problem of dealing with radioactive waste produced in the nuclear reaction still remains. This waste has to be securely stored, as it will produce for hundreds, sometimes thousands, of years, radiation harmful for all living things. Nuclear repositories where this waste is kept are already reaching their capacity limit.

In 1983, Meryl Streep, Kurt Russell and Cher starred in Silkwood, a drama about a nuclear power station worker found dead in strange circumstances after having reported irregularities related to security in the station she worked in. Jane Fonda, Michael Douglas and Jack Lemmon also reported the dangers surrounding nuclear power in The China syndrome (1977), a more didactic movie, but a plainer and poorer one as well.

Nowadays, movies about nuclear power are out of date because nuclear power itself is: it’s been a long time already without new stations being built in most countries. Alternative and more ecological energies, like solar or aeolic, are being studied instead. These aren’t still enough developed, though, for allowing the closing-down of all the nuclear stations still active (five of which are located here in Spain, by the way). Few people doubt that is the destiny meant for all those stations either in the short or in the long term, though. Nuclear power was absolutely the biggest failure of engineering in the 20th century.


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