Downside of Nuclear Energy:
Energy production has been a major issue that has attracted huge concerns in the recent past because of the negative environmental impacts associated with generating energy through burning of fossil fuels. A growing interest in nuclear power has significantly increases during this period as it is considered as a real solution to energy security and means of dealing with climate change. Actually, there have been concerns on whether nuclear power is the solution or answer to a warming planet or it is dangerous and expensive to meet the future energy needs of the modern society. While some people have argued in support of the use of nuclear energy as a solution to these problems, others have opposed such attempts. These varying opinions have been based on arguments and counter-arguments that demonstrate the advantages and disadvantages of nuclear energy.
Increased Attention on Nuclear Power:
As previously mentioned, nuclear power or energy has received huge attention and focus in the recent past because of the environmental effects associated with energy production from burning of fossil fuels, particularly global warming or climate change. In addition to other alternatives, nuclear power is currently being considered as a real solution to the energy security and a major way of addressing the problem of global climate change. There has been an ever-growing interest in nuclear energy because of increasing search for green alternatives to fossil fuels like natural gas and coal, which has received support from some environmentalists because of the dangers and threats of global warming.
The Nuclear Fuel Cycle:
According to Adamson, “the process that produces energy in a nuclear reactor is a slowed-down version of what happens in an atomic bomb (p.23).” The development of atomic energy for bombs involves a very rapid chain of reaction that occurs in a radioactive material, which releases huge amounts of energy in a fraction of a second i.e. producing an explosion. In a nuclear power plant, there is a much smaller portion of the radioactive fuel that is involved in a chain reaction at a specific moment. Therefore, rather than having a single explosion during this process, there is an ongoing procedure of small releases of energy. The generated energy in turn heats a gas or water in the core of the nuclear reactor. Once these processes are completed, electricity is generated in a similar manner like oil or coal burning plant through the use of steam to drive a turbine. This implies that nuclear power is basically a complicated procedure to boil water to produce energy.
Generally, the principle of energy production in a nuclear reactor is similar to that of oil and coal burning plants. In this case, the fuel is consumed, generating energy which heats a gas or liquid that drives an electricity-generating turbine. Heat is generated in a nuclear reactor since the fuel i.e. uranium is unstable and produces particles and bursts of energy as it break downs in order to heat the gas or liquid between the fuel. In order to generate fuel that is adequately unstable, it is always important to purify the initial uranium ore. Secondly, plutonium, which occurs as a by-product of nuclear fission or atomic breakdown in a nuclear reactor, must be separated from the waste products through reprocessing. Third, poisonous radioactive wastes must be eliminated since it is impossible to separate the issue of waste disposal and reprocessing from nuclear power. Actually, the two major issues facing the nuclear industry are waste disposal and reprocessing because of their role in nuclear energy production.
Arguments in Support of Nuclear Energy:
There are various arguments that have been raised in support of nuclear energy production as an alternative in an energy-limited world. The proponents of nuclear power support their arguments on the basis that the economics are not only logical but also sensible and that the public has a distorted perspective of safety risks. According to Totty, “The argument for nuclear power can be stated pretty simple: We have no choice.” (par, 4). An ambitious expansion of nuclear power is regarded as the solution for addressing the threat of global warming and satisfying the ever-growing need for electricity or energy security.
The first reason is the argument that nuclear energy has minimal environmental effects since nuclear power plants produce virtually no carbon dioxide and no mercury or sulfur. Even in consideration of full life-cycle emissions, discharges of carbon-dioxide from nuclear power generation is akin to the full life-cycle emissions of hydropower and wind while less than solar power. Secondly, nuclear power is the only alternative that fits the bill on the basis of displacing fossil fuel and meeting the demands for electricity or energy on a 24-hour basis. Unlike the other non-renewable energy sources, nuclear power plants have the capacity to generate more electricity and meet the demands to energy security with less environmental effects.
The Case against Nuclear Power:
Even though arguments in support of nuclear power are quite logical, there is a stronger case against nuclear power that is based on two major factors i.e. economics and safety. Furthermore, the two major thorny issues in nuclear power industry also demonstrate the seeming inability to develop and establish a viable long-term nuclear industry. When considering nuclear power as an alternative to existing problems brought by current methods of energy production, it is important to be realistic about the limits of this alternative as well as others. Actually, a critical evaluation of arguments in support of nuclear energy fosters the case against this form of energy production.
When the actual costs of nuclear power are compared to the real benefits of using renewable energy technologies, it is increasingly obvious that renewable energy sources have significant positive impacts and numerous benefits. Investments in nuclear energy seem illogical and inappropriate since the world is currently in search of energy security and solutions to global climate change. In reality, the actual solutions to the issue of energy security and climate change are currently available and nuclear power is not among them because it is the most dangerous and expensive means of generating electricity (“The Case against Nuclear Power,” p.1). The deployment of renewable energy requires minimal to no fuel inputs so as to exploit free and clean sources of energy such as sun and wind that are widely available and accessible throughout the world.
The case against nuclear energy is supported by the impossibility in separating the issues of waste disposal and reprocessing from nuclear power unlike other energy sources. The ability to generate nuclear energy is dependent on the ability to carry out effective purification and reprocessing at every stage of the process. Waste disposal and reprocessing are very crucial in nuclear energy since every step in this process is dependent on the next and the cyclic re-use of fuels (Adamson, p.25). Since every stage is in the full life-cycle of nuclear energy is characterized with major problems with no socially-acceptable solution, the development and establishment of nuclear power is impossible.
Apart from these factors, the case against nuclear power is supported by other major reasons including & #8230;
Some people have argued that nuclear power plant is more cost-efficient with regards to the cost of electricity per kilowatt. As a result, these people argue that nuclear energy is cheap as compared to the existing energy sources and renewable sources of energy. This source of energy seems to be economically uncompetitive because mainly because of the cost of cheaper fossil fuels do not reflect high costs associated with emissions of greenhouse gases into the Earth’s atmosphere. For instance, it is estimated that a carbon price of between $25 and $50 a ton leads to the economical competitiveness of nuclear power with coal. Therefore, when the costs of the existing sources of power are combined, nuclear energy seems to be a huge bargain.
However, researchers refute this claim by arguing that the costs of obtaining, maintaining, and disposing nuclear power plants are relatively high. Actually, no one knows the cost of a new reactor until one is developed while estimates for new construction continue to escalate (Totty par, 42). It is estimated that constructing a new nuclear power plant could cost more $6,000 a kilowatt of generating capacity as compared to six years ago when it was estimated to be around $4,000 for the same capacity. The increase in cost estimates is also attributed to the small number of vendors who are able to supply crucial reactor components and shortage of construction and engineering skills. In addition, if a nuclear power plant was really cost efficient as claimed, the invisible hand of market will push the trend. Nonetheless, nuclear energy only contributes to less than 10% of electricity across the globe. The issue of the costs of developing and maintaining a nuclear power plant implies that only few if any nuclear energy plant will be built in the next couple of years.
Since the costs of developing and maintaining a nuclear power plant are unknown, it is wrong to argue that nuclear power is cheaper as compared to other non-renewable energy sources. The expectations of increased cost estimates and lack of adequate construction and engineering skills prove that building and maintaining a nuclear power plant is relatively a more expensive process that would require costly taxpayer subsidies. For example, the development of two new nuclear power plant reactors in southeast Florida cost between $6 billion and $9 billion for each plant. Therefore, the development and maintenance of nuclear power plants to produce electricity cannot be supported in terms of costs because it enforces an unacceptable high price of consumers.
The second major point for determining whether we should adopt and depend on nuclear energy as a long-term viable alternative is safety or security. Proponents argue that nuclear power plants are safer than in the past though many people continue to live in the warped perspective of previous nuclear power accidents. The modern nuclear power plants are much safer because regulators used past accidents to enhance safety. This resulted in establishment of more safety features, improved training of plant personnel, and redesign of reactors to lessen chances of occurrence of accidents. Moreover, they state that the likelihood of hostile nations or terrorists to use nuclear material to develop atomic weapons will not be solved by turning away from nuclear energy.
Even though the safety of nuclear power plants has increased, many countries do not have strong mechanisms for regulating nuclear safety. In reality, the whole nuclear power industry is increasingly susceptible to safety standards. Moreover, the expansion of nuclear power plants could contribute to the proliferation of nuclear weapons since by-product of these power plants can be converted into nuclear bombs. Nuclear power plants are also likely to become the target of armies and terrorist because they contain plutonium, which is the most life-destroying component known to humanity (Williams, par, 5). The threats to safety emanating from nuclear proliferation is attributed to the fact that reprocessing, which is a crucial process in these plants, can produce separated plutonium that is easier to divert to or steal for production of weapons of mass destruction. In essence, there is an intimate and unavoidable link between nuclear energy and nuclear weapon. These safety issues prove that nuclear energy should not be considered as a long-term viable solution to the problem of climate change and increased need for energy security.
The absence of proper policies and measures to prevent risks associated with nuclear power plants makes it difficult to consider adopting nuclear energy as a long-term viable solution. There are several real-world examples showing these increased risks including the leakage of nearly 100 tons of highly radioactive water from a storage tank at Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan. This incident followed another one in the same nuclear plant in which six employees were accidentally soaked in radioactive water. The other examples are the 1979 accident in Pennsylvania’s Three Mile Island nuclear power plant and the explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in the Ukraine in 1986.
Waste disposal is a major issue for the nuclear industry because of its potential impacts on the environment. Proponents of nuclear power have suggested that the most effective way of disposing waste is deep underground where radioactive materials can be barred from having any contact and effects on the environment. Moreover, storage in deep pools next to the nuclear power plants is regarded adequately safe to meet the needs of the nuclear future well into the future. Therefore, nuclear energy is regarded as a better option for generating electricity without emission of huge amounts of toxic pollution or greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. It is regarded as a safer alternative to solve the problem of global climate change.
Despite claims that nuclear energy is clean air energy, nuclear power plants are not considerable improvement over traditional coal-burning power plants. Plant construction, uranium mining, leeching, decommissioning, and milling in nuclear power plants all generate considerable amounts of greenhouse gases. These power plants will contribute significantly to climate change and global warming because of carbon-equivalent emissions associated with the whole nuclear fuel life cycle. The increase in global warming from these plants will be brought by depletion of stock-piles of high-grade uranium. Nuclear power plants require large areas of land; its construction can influence local animals. The mining of nuclear resources also lead to potential environmental hazards since we cannot handle its waste perfectly.
In addition to these factors, nuclear energy is not a suitable alternative for energy security and the problem of climate change because of the existence of better alternative i.e. wind and solar power. These alternatives are not only clean and renewable but they do not have problems associated with renewable energy sources including nuclear power. These better alternatives are cheaper and increasingly getting cheaper whereas nuclear power is more expensive and getting more costly. While these alternatives may not be available for 24 hours daily, the development of new technology is addressing the problem.
While there are logical reasons and arguments to support development of nuclear energy, there is a strong case against such measures. There are several challenges and issues associated with using nuclear energy as a long-term viable solution to energy security needs and means of addressing the problem of climate change. Some of these reasons include the major issues facing the nuclear industry, potential environmental hazards, economics, and safety. Therefore, while nuclear energy offers a suitable alternative to address some of the existing problems in the energy sector, it is also associated with equal number of challenges and problems. There are better alternatives than nuclear energy that can address the current problems and needs.
Adamson, Greg. We All Live on Three Mile Island: The Case against Nuclear Power. Sydney: Pathfinder, 1981. Print.
“The Case against Nuclear Power and the Case for Real Solutions to Energy Security and Climate Change.” Greenpeace International. GREENPEACE. Web. 31 May 2014. .
Totty, Michael. “The Case For and Against Nuclear Power.” The Wall Street Journal. Dow Jones & Company, 30 June 2008. Web. 31 May 2014. .
Williams, Chris. “The Case against Nuclear Power.” ISR – International Socialist Review. The Center for Economic Research and Social Change. Web. 31 May 2014. .