Critical Response-Nuclear Energy

  • SumoMe

For my Trends and Issues class at NSU we were asked to write a critical response to a current event or issue. In the wake of the Japan tsunami and subsequent nuclear disaster, I thought reopening debate about nuclear energy was fitting. My assignment is below.

Nuclear Energy

The debate over widespread use of Nuclear energy is nothing new. Ever since the world witnessed the awesome power of nuclear energy in the form of the two atomic bombs dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima at the end of World War II, the world has been skeptical of its power. The release of radioactive gases at Three Mile Island in the United States and then Chernobyl in Ukraine did not help public misconceptions about nuclear energy (Nuclear Disasters and Accidents, n.d.). In the wake of the March11th tsunami in Japan that has left the northeastern coastline in complete tatters and four nuclear power stations on the brink of meltdown; the nuclear debate is alive more than ever.

Nuclear power plants produce energy much the way a coal-fired power plant does. Only the source of the energy differentiates the two. Coal fired power plants use coal as the primary fuel source to turn water into steam, which in turns powers a turbine that is connected to a generator, thus providing power that can then be stored and distributed accordingly. Nuclear reactors use a special kind of Uranium called U-235. The U-235 is produced in pellets, which are then inserted into rods. These rods get lowered into a reactor. By colliding a neutron into a U-235 atom, the neutron splits the U-235 atom into two lighter elements and releases two more neutrons. This process is nuclear fission. The two released neutrons to go on to bombard other U-235 atoms and the process repeats itself over and over. The byproduct from fission, besides the two freed neutrons, is heat and radiation. The method of energy creation is the same for that of the coal power plant beginning with the transformation of water to steam.

The argument for traditional coal fired power plants and nuclear power rages on today nearly 51 years after the first light bulbs were lit by nuclear power in Arco, Idaho. Much of the argument today focuses on the environment impacts between these two forms of power generation. To better understand the polarization of the energy generation issue, positives and negatives of both coal fired power plants and nuclear power plants need to be examined.

Coal powered power plant cons:

  • Burning coal or any other fossil fuel emits large amounts of gases into the atmosphere. These gases can cause acid rain and contribute to global warming and the greenhouse effect (Lenzen, 2008).
  • Coal powered power plants can affect the health of citizens living close to them. Pulmonary illnesses are the most common illnesses associated with coal power plants (Gabbard, 2008).
  • Coal is a non-renewable resource.

Nuclear power cons:

  • Nuclear energy produces radioactive waste as a byproduct. To date there is no solution to this problem. This material can remain radioactive and harmful to humans for thousands of years (Kazimi, 2003).
  • Nuclear power has high risks. A disaster at a nuclear facility can have wide reaching human consequences that can be seen for decades.  (Gabbard, 2008).
  • Uranium is a non-renewable resource.
  • Nuclear proliferation is a threat as rogue nations seek to get control of uranium and plutonium for destructive purposes. The same know how to build nuclear power plants can be used to build nuclear weapons, which could be used in terrorist attacks (“Pro’s and Con’s,” 2002).
  • Building nuclear power plants are expensive and take 20-30 years in developed countries to complete. Due to the perceived dangers, finding locations suitable and citizens agreeable to the construction can be nearly impossible (Associated Press, 2011).

Coal powered power plant pros:

  • Coal is abundant and inexpensive to mine.
  • Coal, compared with other energy sources like oil and natural gas is inexpensive meaning lower costs for consumers.
  • Coal can be transformed into liquid and gaseous states making it a versatile fossil fuel.
  • Coal fired power plants present little risk to their immediate surrounds in terms of explosions or other malfunctions that might occur during the power generation process (Energy Resources: Coal, 2009).

Nuclear power pros:

  • Nuclear power generation does not produce CO2 or other environmentally damaging greenhouse gases.
  • “A single uranium fuel pellet the size of a fingertip contains as much energy as 17,000 cubic feet of natural gas, 1,780 pounds of coal or 149 gallons of oil (Costs: Fuel, Operation, 2011).”
  • Uranium, while nonrenewable, is plentiful supplies and could generate power well past what the reserves of coal might provide (Costs: Fuel, Operation, 2011).
  • Nuclear power is inexpensive compared to coal, oil, and natural gas (Costs: Fuel, Operation, 2011).
  • Nuclear power could help countries like the United States to become energy independent and end their reliance on Middle Eastern oil (The Future of Nuclear, 2009).

Personally, I believe that nuclear energy’s advantages outweigh its significant negatives. James Lovelock, the author of the Gaia Hypothesis and noted environmentalist writes, the warming of earth and the increase in greenhouse gases presents the largest problem modern societies may ever face (2004). The balance of the planet has reached a tipping point. If humans do not curb the emissions of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere the gradual but certain effects of raising temperatures will have far more profound effects on the human race many times that of the nuclear accident in Chernobyl (Lovelock, 2004).

“Fossil fuel-based electricity is projected to account for more than 40% of global greenhouse gas emissions by 2020. In the U.S. 90% of the carbon emissions from electricity generation come from coal-fired generation, even though this accounts for only 52% of the electricity produced.” (The Future of Nuclear, 2009)

Nuclear energy is hurt by commonly held misconceptions. If one was to look at the deaths of major nuclear accidents the combined loss of life and risk to future generations has been relatively small. Earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes and coal-fired power plants kill far more people each year than the worst nuclear disaster. To put this into perspective, “the average for all [nuclear] meltdowns would be 400 deaths. Since air pollution from coal burning is estimated to be causing 10,000 deaths per year, there would have to be 25 melt-downs each year for nuclear power to be as dangerous as coal burning.” Nuclear power generation, if judged by human deaths, represents the safest form of energy production on the planet (Cohen, n.d.).

Further nuclear energy development pursued globally could end our reliance on oil and coal greatly reducing CO2 emissions and easing geo-political tensions in the Middle East. This would help end worldwide dependence on fossil fuels and would do much to alleviate geo-political pressures that are a direct result of the western world’s insatiable thirst for oil. The United States currently uses only about 20% of nuclear energy. France leads the way producing almost 70% of its power by nuclear energy (A Lifetime of Service, n.d.). China will soon outpace other nuclear capable developed countries with the projected construction of 25 new nuclear reactors in the next 20 years. China’s rapid economic growth is spurring the country to add nuclear power to help meet its energy needs as it moves into the 21st century (Nuclear Power in China, 2011). President Obama has recently announced more than 8 billion dollars in federal loans for the construction of the first nuclear reactor in nearly 30 years (Associated Press, 2011).

Nuclear power is also seeing progress in using thorium as fuel for nuclear reactions. Thorium has several advantages over uranium. First, it is far more abundant in the earth’s crust that uranium. Second, thorium produces far less plutonium as a byproduct of fission and therefore producing up to half the amount of traditional uranium powered nuclear power plants. (Kazimi, 2003) Thorium reduces the amount of time for radioactive materials to decay to safe human levels and also decreases the amount of space needed to store spent nuclear fuel sources. Perhaps the largest advantage to thorium is its ability to significantly reduce the threat of nuclear proliferation. McCarthy has noted that every country that has wanted to build a nuclear bomb has done so, yet none have done so with spent nuclear fuel from power generation (McCarthy, 2008). Because the spent uranium and plutonium are a fraction of that produced in a traditional nuclear power plant, there is less of this material to fall into the hands of terrorist groups wishing to use it for the manufacture of a nuclear terrorist device. Extracting the uranium needed from spent thorium requires more shielding from the gamma radiation it gives off and remotely operated equipment making it even more difficult to pull out useable uranium. This makes it nearly impossible for terrorists to use to manufacture a nuclear bomb.

Nuclear energy has a value added component to power generation. Hydrogen is a byproduct of the fission process. Many environmentalists feel a hydrogen economy might be the saving grace of earth’s greenhouse dilemma. Hydrogen production is hampered by the large amount of energy necessary to separate hydrogen atoms from oxygen atoms in water molecules  (Schultz, Brown, Besenbruch, & Hamilton, 2003). Currently, the energy needed to produce hydrogen is created using energy largely derived from coal powered plants in the United States. The net gain in an environmentally fuel source becomes negative during this process due to the large amount of CO2 and sulfur dioxide emitted into the atmosphere as a result of burning coal for energy production. In creating a sustainable fuel source, we have to use a polluting non-renewable fuel source to manufacture it. Nuclear energy represents a clean energy source that is capable of producing hydrogen efficiently (Miller & Duffey, 2004).

Currently, nuclear energy is the only viable energy source capable of producing the amount of energy needed to sustain current levels of productivity and innovation around the world (Van der Zwaan, 2002). Faith that technology and innovation can save us from environmental collapse is apropos given the major advances in technology within the last century. But, technology and innovation will be borne from increased global energy output (Canton, 2006). Nuclear fusion might be one of these technological advances that show vast potential. However, until we can adequately produce fusion events safely and economically we have to make use of the energy producing techniques that offer the greatest amount of energy while doing the minimum amount of harm or our environment. At this point the only clear alternative is the further research and development of nuclear energy which will power humans into the 22nd century and beyond and may just be the catalyst for the solution to the human energy crisis.


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