Over the years, there have been opposing views about nuclear energy. While some energy experts consider nuclear power a great alternative source of energy next to fossil fuels, environmentalists have stated their concerns on this issue. The contentious issues surrounding the use of nuclear technology and its global effect have made this energy source a controversial one.
Just what exactly is nuclear energy? Considered to be a promising non-renewable producer of electricity, with over 30 countries benefiting from it, including the United States and some countries in Europe, it is the energy that results when the nucleus of an atom is split into two different lighter elements. During this process, its mass is then converted into massive energy that can supply electricity. In fact, around 13% of the world’s electricity demand comes from this energy source.
However, the ongoing argument on its good and harmful effects in a global scale is again making news since there have been talks that many countries have expressed their plans on nuclear power development. In the U.S. alone, legislative actions have been taken both at the federal and state levels pushing for the regulation and at the same time expansion of atomic energy. Other countries like China, India and Russia also have plans of increasing their nuclear capacity by the year 2020.This is despite the decline of popularity of nuclear plants following the Chernobyl accident in 1986 and the relatively recent 2011 Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster.
For a clearer perspective, here are some of the pros and cons of nuclear energy to consider.
List of Pros of Nuclear Energy
1. Availability and Sustainability
Given the need for lesser Uranium to produce energy, figures show that the world has more than enough supply that will last between 70-80 years. This clearly suggests not having to worry of consuming this element in this lifetime. In North America, there is adequate supply of Uranium reserves, ensuring energy security. This is an assurance that the demand for electricity supply coming from nuclear energy can be met. Moreover, nuclear power plants can provide needed energy without interruption for at least a year unless for maintenance work unlike other energy sources like solar and wind that are dependent on weather conditions.
2. Higher Level of Efficiency over Fossil Fuel
Nuclear energy are more feasible and efficient than other sources like fossil fuels since the energy produced by nuclear power plants are of high density than that of the energy produced by others. Also, the fuel needed in the process of producing nuclear energy is much less than the fuel consumed to burn coal and oil. This is because the released nuclear energy from the split of the nucleus is greater than the energy produced from a fossil atom.
3. Low Maintenance and Less Expense
Nuclear power plants normally lasts between 40-60 years which makes it preferable than other power plants. Since it can operate for decades with low maintenance costs, this means there is no need to shut down the plant only after a short period of time, making it a long term investment. Another point is the availability of Uranium and the amount needed to produce energy. Even if the demand will increase, there is ample supply.
4. Cleanliness and Lower Greenhouse Gas Emissions
Air pollution is aggravated by the carbon emissions and other hazardous chemicals coming from several pollutants including the burning of coal and natural gas to produce energy. Nuclear power does not release carbon dioxide, excluding it from the list of elements and factors contributing to global warming.
List of Cons of Nuclear Energy
Although a nuclear power plant needs low maintenance once it is operational, the amount of money needed to build one is far from being cheap. The expense to be incurred to set up a 1,000-megawatt (MW) power plant can reach up to $2 billion dollars and this is on top of the expenses needed in the course of building the plant which can take up to five years. Other power plants such as coal and combined-cycle gas turbine cost less and take lesser amount of time to build.
One of the points raised by opposing groups is the danger to health and safety of the people due t the increasing number of nuclear reactors. A number of instances regarding threats to safety have occurred. One of which was the damage on the core of one of the reactors in the late ‘70s. Another was the impending accident in the Ohio plant that was fortunately discovered during inspection. It was blamed on poor maintenance. Those who are against nuclear plants are also bringing up the issue of Plutonium, the end product of reprocessing spent fuel, getting stolen and used to produce weapons of destruction such as bombs that can annihilate the world’s population.
3. Poor and Hazardous Waste Disposal
Perhaps, one of the most serious problems thrown to advocates of the use of nuclear energy and the power plants is the lack of long-term waste storage sites. In the U.S., nuclear wastes are currently stored on the grounds of existing power plants. Concerned groups fear the day when these plants can no longer contain the wastes. And although there is already a nuclear repository in Nevada, the government has not yet succeeded to dump the waste in the site because of ruling of the U.S. Court of Appeals favoring the people of Nevada over the Environmental Protection Agency.
There is no doubt on the efficiency of nuclear energy over other forms of energy sources as well as its being considered environmentally friendly for being carbon-free. Many countries are focusing on nuclear power development as well. Nevertheless, the disadvantages presented by environmentalists should not be ignored. At the end of the day, what matters is the safety and convenience of the majority. And leaders all over the world should work together in keeping this world a safer place for everyone and implementing a nuclear program.
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Nuclear power is once again considered a prominent alternative, despite the disregard it was met with in the 1970s. This is because it’s now being touted as a more environmentally beneficial solution since it emits far fewer greenhouse gases during electricity generation than coal or other traditional power plants.
It is widely accepted as a somewhat dangerous, potentially problematic, but manageable source of generating electricity. Radiation isn’t easily dealt with, especially in nuclear waste and maintenance materials, and expensive solutions are needed to contain, control, and shield both people and the environment from its harm.
The dialogue about using nuclear power – and expanding it – centers on weighing these risks against the rewards, as well as the risks inherent in other forms of power generation. These are just some of the issues involved.
An excerpt from Design is the Problem, by Nathan Shedroff, published by Rosenfeld Media
- Lower carbon dioxide (and other greenhouse gases) released into the atmosphere in power generation.
- Low operating costs (relatively).
- Known, developed technology “ready” for market.
- Large power-generating capacity able to meet industrial and city needs (as opposed to low-power technologies like solar that might meet only local, residential, or office needs but cannot generate power for heavy manufacturing).
- Existing and future nuclear waste can be reduced through waste recycling and reprocessing, similar to Japan and the EU (at added cost).
- High construction costs due to complex radiation containment systems and procedures.
- High subsidies needed for construction and operation, as well as loan guarantees.
- Subsidies and investment could be spent on other solutions (such as renewable energy systems).
- High-known risks in an accident.
- Unknown risks.
- Long construction time.
- Target for terrorism (as are all centralized power generation sources).
- Waivers are required to limit liability of companies in the event of an accident. (This means that either no one will be responsible for physical, environmental, or health damages in the case of an accident or leakage over time from waste storage, or that the government will ultimately have to cover the cost of any damages.)
- Nuclear is a centralized power source requiring large infrastructure, investment, and coordination where decentralized sources (including solar and wind) can be more efficient, less costly, and more resilient.
- Uranium sources are just as finite as other fuel sources, such as coal, natural gas, etc., and are expensive to mine, refine, and transport, and produce considerable environmental waste (including greenhouse gasses) during all of these processes.
- The majority of known uranium around the world lies under land controlled by tribes or indigenous peoples who don’t support it being mined from the earth.
- The legacy of environmental contamination and health costs for miners and mines has been catastrophic.
- Waste lasts 200 – 500 thousand years.
- There are no operating long-term waste storage sites in the U.S. One is in development, but its capacity is already oversubscribed. Yucca Mountain is in danger of contaminating ground water to a large water basin, affecting millions of people. It’s difficult, if not impossible, for the U.S. to impose its will on the state of Nevada (or other places) if they don’t want to host long-term storage of waste.
- There are no operating “next generation” reactors, such as high-temperature breeder reactors and particle-beam activated reactors, that are reported to produce less waste and have reduced safety concerns. Even if these technologies were ready, they wouldn’t be deployable commercially for another two decades.
- Shipping nuclear waste internationally poses an increased potential threat to interception to terrorism (though this has not happened yet with any of the waste shipped by other countries). Increasing the amount of waste shipped, particularly in less secure countries, is seen as a significant increase in risk to nuclear terrorism.
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Nathan Shedroff graduated from Presidio in 2006 and currently runs the first Design MBA program at California College of the Arts
Image credit: Flickr user Tobo