Nuclear Energy : its merits and demerits

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Nuclear Energy

Introduction

Global energy demand continues to climb as the industrialized world’s energy use rises, millions pull themselves out of poverty in developing countries, and the world population expands. Thus, the debate over the energy supply of the future intensifies. This debate is complicated by ongoing global climate destabilization as a result of green house gas (GHG) emissions produced largely from combustion of fossil fuels (coal, oil, and natural gas) for energy. These scientific findings and economic threats have catalyzed commitments by many industrialized countries to curb GHG emissions, which in turn have created an enormous need for large-scale sources of energy alternatives to the polluting and potentially dwindling economic supplies of fossil fuels. Nuclear technology is often proposed as a solution or as part of the solution for a sustainable energy supply. In fact, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recommended nuclear power as a key mitigation technology that is currently commercially available. The term sustainability, however, has numerous meanings that range from the light (pale) green definitions that normally refer to near-term financial sustainability to dark green long-term multi-faceted descriptions of sustainability. Here the concept of just sustainability, which includes what has been called the equity deficit of environmental sustainability, will be used as if these requirements are met so will those of the other weaker definitions.

This conception of sustainable development focuses equally on four conditions:

  • improving our quality of life and well-being
  • On meeting the needs of both present and future generations (intra- and intergenerational equity)
  • On justice and equity in terms of recognition, process, procedure and outcome
  • On the need for us to live within ecosystem limit.

 

Advantages

  • Nuclear power generation does emit relatively low amounts of CO2. Nowadays global warming because of the greenhouse gases is a hot topic. The contribution of nuclear power to global warming is relatively little. This is a great advantage of nuclear power plants. Otherwise we have to reconsider that the water used in the cooling towers produces H2O vapors, which is the number 1 greenhouse gas. H2O causes about 2/3 of the greenhouse effect. This is because of a positive feedback mechanism. If  the earth warms up, there will be more H2O vapors in the air, which reinforce the greenhouse effect.
  • Nuclear power plants already exist and are available worldwide. So in comparison to, for example, nuclear fusion, the technology does not have to be developed first. Also other new technologies (wind energy, solar energy, …) are still in its infancy.

 

  • Coal-fired power plants, like this one emit pollutants that can contribute to climate change, decreased air quality and acid rain. Compared to coal, nuclear power production results in very little atmospheric pollution. In 2010, massive fossil fuel emissions brought the air quality in Hong Kong dangerously low; residents were advised to remain indoors for safety. Nuclear power plants won’t create smog like this.
  • While nuclear plants are somewhat expensive to build, a single facility can provide massive output for years. When this picture was taken in 2000, nuclear power accounted for almost 20 percent of all the city lights you see within the United States.
  • Reliable nuclear technology is already developed. No new innovations are needed to create nuclear reactors that are relatively safe and efficient. Above, the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation opens a new research reactor in 2007.

 

Disadvantages

  • Raw Material

Uranium is used in the process of fission because it’s a naturally unstable element. Unfortunately, this means that while the uranium is being mined, transported and transformed into the contained pellets used in the fission chamber it is at risk of splitting on its own. This releases harmful radiation into its surroundings, and can be harmful to those handling the material. Runoff from the uranium mines poses a dangerous health risk and possible contamination to water tables.

  • Water Pollutant

Nuclear fission chambers are cooled by water. This water is then turned into steam, which is used to power the turbines. When the water cools enough to change back into liquid form, it is pumped outside into nearby wetlands. While measures are taken to ensure that no radiation is being pumped into the environment, other heavy metals and pollutants can make their way out of the chamber. The immense heat given off by this water can also be damaging to eco systems located nearby the reactor

  • Radioactive Waste

One of the main worries people have about nuclear power is what to do with the radioactive waste that is generated by the reactors and secondly, what is the safety impact of storing this waste. However, even though no long-term solution has been found to eliminate the problem of waste management, the problem is much smaller than is commonly perceived. As can be seen below, the amount of deaths linked to radioactive waste over the long term are insignificant, especially when compared to the deaths caused by coal and solar power.

 

 

Deaths per 1,000 MW plant per year of operation due to waste:

One of the reasons for this low death rate is that the quantities of radioactive waste generated by a reactor are not large. In fact, the waste produced by a nuclear reactor is equivalent to the size of a coin per person, per year (Lauvergon 2003). It has even been calculated that “if the United States went completely nuclear for all its electric power for 10,000 years, the amount of land needed for waste disposal would be about what is needed for the coal ash that is currently generated every two weeks” (Cohen 1990). Worldwide, 40,000 tonnes of waste are generated annually, 15,000 tonnes being spent fuel and the 25,000 remaining tonnes, low level radioactive materials such as protective clothing or shielding (Cohen 1990).

  • Reactor Safety

The reputation of nuclear power as an unsafe energy source is grossly unfair and due mainly to the Chernobyl catastrophe. It is possible to see that of all major electricity sources, nuclear is by far the source with the lowest number of fatalities, with the possible exception of renewables (for which figures aren’t available). Additionally, these figures don’t take into account premature deaths caused by pollution. If included, this would place traditional energy sources even further behind nuclear power in terms of safety.

  • Proliferation Risks

The necessary raw material needed to construct a nuclear weapon is highly enriched uranium or plutonium. Enrichment technology can be used to produce highly enriched uranium. Reprocessing – certainly when the fuel has only been used in the reactor for a short time – could be used to separate out plutonium suitable for use in a nuclear weapon. International agreements have been concluded (the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the Additional Protocol) to make trading in nuclear material and technology and the distribution of the know-how required to construct nuclear installations subject to international supervision. This means control of the peaceful use of nuclear energy technology and security of nuclear fuel. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) pursues initiatives to eventually bring all enrichment and reprocessing installations under international supervision. At the moment, the situation is not yet adequate.

  • Emissions

While greenhouse gas emissions have a potential worldwide impact through global warming and climate change, SOx, NOx and particulate matters have regional or local impacts.

  • Complexity in Operation

This source of energy has a load factor of 80% and future reactors will be able to produce electricity 90% of the time. This is second only to fossil fuels. However, nuclear power does face a problem. It takes 24 hours to get a plant up and running. This means that nuclear plants cannot easily adjust to fluctuating demand. This is why nuclear plants tend to be turned on constantly except during maintenance when other sources, usually fossil fuels, tend to be used to adjust for demand.

Among the risks associated with nuclear energy are the threat of terrorism and proliferation, and one point of discussion is therefore whether expansion of nuclear energy in the Netherlands would pose greater security risks than in the current situation, with only a single nuclear power station.

There are three types of terrorism threat:

  • The use of explosives to disperse radioactive material; this is sometimes referred to as a “dirty bomb”. Construction of a dirty bomb does not require any material from the nuclear fuel cycle. Radioactive material is also present outside the nuclear energy sector, for example at hospitals. Security measures for the fuel cycle must therefore be aimed at preventing material falling into the hands of terrorists.
  • Acquisition of a nuclear weapon by a terrorist organisation. The size and complexity of the necessary equipment means that it is no simple matter for a terrorist organisation to develop and construct a nuclear weapon. Security for nuclear installations must be aimed at minimising the risk of terrorist attacks.
  • An attack on a nuclear installation, storage site, or transport of radioactive material with the intention of causing radioactive substances to be released, thus contaminating the surrounding area. Security systems that close down the reactor automatically in the event of operator error also restrict the potential threat arising from any terrorist takeover of the power station. Designers of nuclear installations and transport containers also take account of the possibility of terrorist attacks. The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has proposed that there should be explicit design requirements for new nuclear power stations as regards resistance to attack using an airliner.
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