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.
Learn about the future of biofuels here.
What about other energy sources?
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
Nuclear energy is a hot topic in today’s world.
Renewable energy sources such as solar and wind haven’t yet proven themselves as viable solutions to meet the population’s wide-scale energy needs.
With constantly growing energy demands, it’s imperative we explore nuclear as a dependable energy source.
The process used to produce nuclear energy is called fission. Nuclear fission occurs when the atom of a nucleus is split, releasing very large amounts of energy.
In nuclear power plants, atoms are continuously split, creating chain reactions that provide high amounts of sustainable energy for a long period of time.
Nuclear energy, much like other power sources, certainly doesn’t come without its drawbacks.
Disposal of radioactive waste, high up-front construction costs, and public safety are key factors that need to be evaluated.
Let’s take a closer look at some of the major pros and cons of nuclear energy.
After the meltdown at Three Mile Island in 1978 and the Chernobyl explosion in 1986, the nuclear industry fell dormant.
Quite a few plants stopped producing power, and the construction of new plants was brought to a halt.
Since then, a resurgence has occurred. In the age of technology, energy demands are at an all-time high, and nuclear had to be looked at as a viable source.
Below you will find the pros that led to the revival of nuclear energy.
Low Greenhouse Gas Emissions.
Compared to coal, gas, and other electric-generating plants, nuclear offers the lowest by far in greenhouse gas release.
Carbon dioxide and similar gases, known for depleting Earth’s atmosphere, have notoriously been an issue in the climate change debate. Due to this fact, nuclear energy has once again been looked at for power production.
According to the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), nuclear energy produces more clean-air energy than any other source. It produces 62 percent of all emission-free electricity in the United States.
In nuclear reactors that utilize large cooling towers, it’s a common misconception that pollution is massively dumped into the air. The large clouds you see leaving the smoke stacks are nothing more than vaporized water.
High Power Output.
One of the most appealing reasons for nuclear energy is its incredibly high fuel to power output ratio. It has the capacity to meet city and industrial needs with just one reactor, let alone multiple.
A relatively small amount of uranium can be used to fuel a 1000 Megawatts electric plant, providing enough electricity to power a city of about half a million people.
Renewable sources, such as solar and wind, provide only enough power to meet residential or office needs. They don’t yet have the capacity of nuclear to handle large-scale power needs, especially in the manufacturing world.
As we’ll discuss in the cons, initial costs to build nuclear plants are high. That said, nuclear power produces very inexpensive electricity once up and running.
Electricity generated by nuclear reactors is cheaper than gas, coal, or any other fossil fuel plants. Also, uranium is a fairly cheap fuel source, and we’ve already covered how little of it is needed to produce massive power.
When you combine all that with an average lifecycle of 40-60 years, the low operating costs far outweigh the high upfront costs to build.
Nuclear Energy Doesn’t Rely on Fossil Fuels.
Quite possibly the most important benefit of nuclear energy is that it doesn’t rely on fossil fuels. This means it’s not affected by the unpredictability of oil and gas costs.
It also means that we won’t be depleting the Earth’s supply of resources nearly as quickly. Nuclear power requires much less fuel to produce a higher amount of energy.
With the current supply of uranium, it is estimated that we have at least another 80 years before supply becomes an issue. There are also other forms of uranium that can be used if needed, extending that timeline even further. This is plenty of time to find alternative sources (such as nuclear fusion, the holy grail of energy), if need be.
Nuclear power provides a vast array of benefits to the economy. Local communities are, more often than not, pro-nuclear due to the amount of jobs and prosperity a new plant brings.
According to the NEI, one new nuclear plant creates 400 to 700 permanent jobs, not to mention thousands of others during its construction. Most nuclear sites have at least 2 plants. This is comparable to just 90 jobs for a coal plant, and 50 for a natural gas plant.
The main reason local communities are so ecstatic over nuclear plants is that each facility generates close to $500 million annually in sales of goods and services. More workers at plants means more people who need lunches and more people with money to spend.
Nuclear energy has a number of positive aspects, making it appealing to more and more countries world-wide. But like all energy sources, it has its downsides.
Many people are scared of nuclear power due to the few, although very significant, accidents that have taken place over the years.
And while nuclear energy operates with little pollution to the environment, it certainly isn’t without its environmental impacts.
Let’s now take a look at some of these cons of nuclear power.
Back-end Environmental Impact.
Possibly the biggest concern among nuclear energy advocates is the environmental impact of uranium as a fuel source.
A typical nuclear power plant generates about 20 metric tons of used nuclear fuel per year. The problem is that this spent fuel is highly radioactive and potentially dangerous.
It’s not a fuel source you can take to a landfill and leave without worry. It has to be carefully handled and stored (which costs a lot of money), and it requires a hefty amount of specially designed storage space.
Spent nuclear fuel takes hundreds of years to decompose before it reaches adequate levels of safety. For this reason alone, it becomes an issue that other energy sources simply don’t have to deal with.
Past History of Nuclear Accidents.
I listed these as numbers 1 and 2, respectively, but if I could I would have listed them as 1 and 1. While experts in the nuclear industry aren’t necessarily as concerned, the public is largely terrified of potential nuclear accidents.
Safety is a big deal in the nuclear industry these days, and rightfully so. While significant accidents are actually incredibly rare, history cannot be ignored. And when they do happen, it’s a major problem.
With the Fukushima incident in Japan in 2011, the global population was reminded that nuclear still has its drawbacks. While causalities actually weren’t high, environmental impact remains an issue today.
Chernobyl is widely known as the worst nuclear accident in the history of the industry. Even though it was more than 30 years ago, the harmful effects are still present to this day.
High Up-Front and End Stage Cost.
We’ve already discussed how cheap and efficient nuclear plants generate electricity while operating. Usually, the pros outweigh the cons; however, cost can be a major deterrent for countries looking to build new plants.
Construction of a new plant can take anywhere from 5-10 years to build, costing billions of dollars. Much of that and more is recouped throughout the lifetime of the plant, but you can see how some nations might be reluctant to pursue.
On the back end, high fuel handling and decommissioning costs aren’t anything to scoff at, either. For the long haul though, if you can stomach it, nuclear energy almost always pays dividends.
Target for Terrorism.
Most people who hear the word “nuclear” immediately think of the nuclear bomb and Hiroshima. While nuclear power generation is certainly different from weapons of mass destruction, it represents a threat to national security if exposed to dangerous people.
Uranium used to power nuclear plants is of a different grade than weapons-grade uranium; however, it can be synthesized from it.
Nuclear technology in the wrong hands presents a problem for most of the free world. Even though security is tight and the probability of an event is low, it’s still something to consider that you don’t necessarily have to worry about with other energy sources.
Not a Renewable Fuel Source.
Last but certainly not least, nuclear energy is not a renewable fuel source.
Contrary to popular belief, Uranium is in limited (although currently abundant) supply. While not a fossil fuel, we still run the risk of running out eventually.
Typical renewable energy sources such as solar and wind are in infinite supply. Uranium has to be mined, synthesized, then activated to produce energy, and it’s very expensive to go through this process.
This alone is one of the big reasons people are trying so hard to make renewables acceptable in meeting our world’s energy demands.
More often than not, the pros outweigh the cons when it comes to nuclear energy.
It has very low operating costs, produces sufficient energy to meet demand, and has a variety of other economic benefits that can’t be ignored.
While accidents and the environmental impact of spent fuel need to be considered, we simply don’t have any better options for long-term mass energy production.
If better solutions come along, the future of nuclear energy will have to be re-examined.
Very smart people, such as Elon Musk, are working hard to make renewables (solar, wind, etc.) a part of the conversation for long-term sustainable power. New, exciting technology continues to come out on a day-to-day basis.
For now though, nuclear remains as one of the only viable options to solving Earth’s increasing energy needs.
What do you think?
Featured Image Credit: Global Panorama @ Flickr