Type: Exploratory
Pages: 9 | Words: 2407
Reading Time: 11 Minutes

Is nuclear energy the answer for our warming planet? Or is it too costly and hazardous to sustain future energy requirements? Interest in nuclear energy is heating up by the day as they search for ‘green’ alternatives to oil and other fossil fuels intensifies. Some environmentalists have joined this bandwagon, citing the seriousness of the threat of global warming to vindicate their support for the once-maligned energy source. However, the issue is far from being settled. Promoters of the production and use of nuclear power insist that it is the most appropriate alternative in an energy-deficient world. Although they, just like nuclear energy opponents, have a crooked image regarding the safety risks involved in the production and use of nuclear energy. The horrible incidents of Three Mile Island, ‘The China Syndrome’, Chornobyl, and the most recent Fukushima serve to convince the world that the costs of nuclear power are too high to vindicate its safety hazards (Walker 10-11). The risks of proliferation are also considered to influence the direction in which the debate on adopting nuclear as an alternative to fossil fuel takes place. Do the benefits of nuclear power outweigh its risks or is it the other way round? Has the nuclear age come as a noble solution to America’s energy crisis, or is it a deadly weapon in the possession of greedy businessmen? The debate rages on, and to lay this argument to rest, the answer is pretty simple; ‘We have no choice’.

Nuclear energy is generated when uranium-235 reacts inside a reactor in a process known as nuclear fission. Uranium is much more effective as a source of energy than oil, coal or gas. In fact, the amount energy contained in a single ounce of uranium equals the amount contained in 100 tons of coal. In the nuclear reactor, uranium combines with free neutron, breaking down into much lighter elements and releasing incredible heat (nuclear fission). There are two types of nuclear reactors, fast breeder and water-moderated reactors. The United States of America started researching nuclear materials for peaceful purposes shortly after WWII under the Atomic Energy Commission. The first researches were for medical purposes whereby medical scientists struggled to establish the relationship between radiation and the development of cancer. The military was also involved in the nuclear research for other peaceful uses. By the turn of 2008, the U.S had 104 commercial nuclear reactors that provided power to most regions of the nation, generating 806.2 TWh of electricity. This figure accounted for 19.6% of the total electricity generated in the nation in 2008. The U.S is the world’s number one supplier of commercial nuclear energy, accounting for about 30% of the worldwide nuclear power generation of electricity.

However, the production of nuclear energy in the U.S is on the decline at the moment. In 2010, several firms reversed their applications for licenses to build new nuclear reactors (Boyd). In a September 2010 New York Times publication, Matthew Wald says that the nuclear renaissance in the U.S is small and slow right now. This comes at a time when the nation is facing an energy crisis brought about by its expanding economy, a growing population, and rising living standards. It is common sense that America’s, and indeed any other county’s way of life and prosperity, are sustained by energy use. America boasts of the technological know-how and other 21st century environmentally friendly technologies that are chief to meeting its current energy challenges (Sovacool 118-119). In the words of former President George W. Bush, America must seek an energy policy that plans for the future, but that meets today’s energy needs, while conserving the environment in the same time. If the U.S intends to address the issue of the global warming and satisfy its currently soaring electricity needs, all it requires is an expanded production of nuclear power.

Greenhouse gases are fast accumulating in the atmosphere, leading to a gradual rise in global average temperatures. In connection to this, electricity production in the U.S accounts for approximately a third of the U.S’s greenhouse emissions, especially from burning fossil fuels for power production. Contrastingly, the nuclear power production emits virtually no greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide in the atmosphere — no mercury or sulfur either. Even if you looked at it from the ‘full life-cycle emissions’ perspective, such as uranium mining, shipping, construction of nuclear plants, and even managing waste, nuclear carbon dioxide emissions can be compared to the full life-cycle discharges of hydro and wind power and much less than solar power. Of course, nuclear power is not the only answer to solving the energy challenge in the U.S. Energy needs to be obtained from other clean sources like wind and solar because environmental conservation is vital. However, people need to be realistic about these other alternatives as far as their potential and feasibility are concerned. As it is, nuclear power accounts for about a fifth of the U.S’s overall energy supply. On the other hand, wind energy accounts for 1% only and solar energy is even less than that. In justifying that nuclear energy is the best replacement for fossil fuels, nuclear power can meet the country’s demand for energy round the clock, but wind and solar energy cannot do that (Sovacool 118-119). Therefore, any expansion in the number of nuclear reactors and plants should help in a major way — even if it does not solve all energy problems.

The case against nuclear power generation boils down, mostly, to its economics. Critiques contend that the vast financial resources are required to establish and finance nuclear power plants make the whole business astoundingly uneconomical when compared to other alternatives (World Nuclear Association). But this is misleading in some cases. The reason that makes building a nuclear power plant costly is that no new plant has been established in the United States since 1977. Consequently, lenders are uncertain of the period of time any new plan could take place, owing to the possible political and regulatory delays. This makes them wary of taking the first risk in financing new plants, effectively maintaining the costs at high levels. However, if the U.S built more plants, timing would become more predictable, and this will have the effect of lowering financing costs because lenders will be more comfortable with such investments (World Nuclear Association). Again, if the federal government took the initiative of extending loan guarantees and other incentives to a predetermined limited number of interested investors over a specified time limit, the high costs associated with nuclear energy generation could come down significantly. It is worth noting that, although nuclear power has been in existence for a while now, it is not a ‘mature’ industry yet. There has been a long dry spell of new plants, which makes nuclear production a rather emerging technology, and therefore subsidies could be in order to get the industry going (World Nuclear Association). Another argument is that the acute shortage of skills and parts also raise the costs. However, if many plants are built, the number of firms supplying the parts will increase due to the increased demand, thereby lowering the prices.

The major reason that makes nuclear energy seem uneconomically competitive is the cost of ‘cheaper’ fossil fuels, mostly coal (World Nuclear Association). However, people fail to appreciate the high costs/dangers that carbon discharges to the environment pose. If you add such costs, suddenly, nuclear power seems a worthy bargain. The good news is that this comparison will come much soon than most people think. The government will assign a cost to greenhouse gases by either direct tax (on the basis of the carbon contained in a fuel) or the so-called cap-and-trade system. This is supposed to limit the emissions while enabling companies with lower discharges to sell credits to the ones with discharges that exceed the cap (World Nuclear Association). When this happens, huge carbon polluters such as electricity will look far more expensive than low carbon emitters, particularly nuclear, hydropower, and wind. Experts argue that a carbon ‘price’ of between $25-50 per ton will make nuclear power economically competitive with coal. This is a sufficient incentive for investors who are considering to build new nuclear plants. Currently, the prices of fossil fuels and natural gas are soaring, beginning to make nuclear more competitive as an alternative. This scenario is already evident in Texas, a deregulated market.

Opponents of nuclear power are more concerned about its safety. Their worries are informed by such events as the Three Mile Island (1979), the Chernobyl disaster (1986), and the most recent Fukushima tragedy (2011) (HSBC). However, the truth on the ground is that in the U.S nuclear plants are much safer than they were years back. The accidents led the industry and regulators to devise strategies and measures that bolster safety in all nuclear plants in the U.S (NRG). More safety features have been installed in the plants, plant workers are well trained, and the reactors have been redesigned to ensure that accidents do not happen. For instance, each U.S nuclear plant has a control-room simulator where the personnel hone their skills as well as handle simulated emergencies. The plant personnel spend a week out of every six weeks in these simulators or in classrooms. Furthermore, the next generation nuclear plants’ design makes them even safer because they will use fewer pumps and piping and they will rely on gravity to convey cooling water in the hot core (NRG). Furthermore, even if an accident happened, the U.S nuclear plants are designed such that they cannot release harmful radiation into the environment. The reactors are enclosed inside huge structures made of four feet thick reinforced concrete walls, a feature the Chernobyl plant lacked.

Opponents cite nuclear waste disposal as a fundamental challenge due to the highly radioactive nature of uranium (Brian 44). However, this is mainly a policy issue, rather than a technical one. Experts agree that deep underground is the best place to dispose nuclear wastes because they will not find their way into the environment or in the hands of terrorists. Radioactive wastes iare one more risk associated with nuclear operations. Uranium, after being used in reactors, has to be disposed in a manner that is secure and safe to avoid health risks (U.S National Research Council). This poses another challenge due to continued radioactivity of nuclear wastes which may persist for thousands of years to come (Brian 47). Therefore, the nuclear wastes have to be stored in facilities that are secluded to reduce health risks. These depositories are located in mountainous places away from a human contact. There are nuclear emissions, which are also responsible for the global warming and climatic change (U.S National Research Council).

The greatest risks attributed to nuclear power are the effects of radiation on human health (Ramana 44). The radiation is made up of subatomic particles, which travel at a very high speed that is close to one hundred and eighty six thousand miles per second. These radiations are able to penetrate to the deepest places of the skin of the body and destroy biological cells and; therefore, instigate cancer. If these radiations hit sex cells, progeny genetic diseases can be initiated (Brian 45-6). There are accidents which have been reported in the nuclear reactors. The clear crisis can clearly be illustrated by the tsunami and earthquake which happened on the 11th March, 2011. Japan heavily relies on nuclear power for its survival, and a lot of operations were derailed or stopped altogether. The huge amounts of water were too much to be handled by safeguards put in place. This led to Fukushima Daiichi facility pumps to be knocked out and there was a partial meltdown in six reactors. Although people were evacuated, radioactive isotopes could be felt in water taps miles away. The effects are expected to increase cases of cancer in Japan and around the world (HSBC). There was a lot of contamination of the sea water and the effects will last for a long time. The Chernobyl accidents, which occurred in 1986, resulted in unanticipated deaths. The fires and explosions that came from it released a minimum of 5% of core radioactive reactor into the atmosphere. Two workers died on the spot, and other twenty eight workers died after a few weeks due to the poisoning. Two year after the accidents other deaths continued to be noticed. The accident vandalized the Chernobyl 4 reactors and resulted in thirty deaths within a time of three months from accidents. Other related deaths were reported separately but were as a result of the nuclear accident (Harrison, 71).

In the environment, everyone is exposed least particles of radiation that are total close to fifteen thousands. 100 billions particles are involved by any medical X-rays. This is not very dangerous since quite a larger amount of radiation particle exposure is needed for them to cause a cancerous infection. Technology of nuclear power produces active materials that emit radiation through a radioactive process. These materials can be released to the environment when accidents happen during transportation or handling nuclear material (Ramana 44). The atomic bomb that was dropped at Hiroshima and Nagasaki continued to cause deaths and disabilities in the following generations (Brian 45). This presents another reason why the production of nuclear power should not be adopted because it is more likely to facilitate the unwarranted proliferation of nuclear weapons (Stephanie 19).

The debate concerning whether to adopt nuclear energy in the U.S as an alternative for fossil fuels rages has been going on. Against the backdrop of the equally controversial debate on the best ways to contain global warming, a line has been drawn between the proponents and opponents of nuclear power. This contention comes at a time when the United States is experiencing a nagging energy crisis due to its expanding population growth, change in lifestyle, and expanding economy. The production of electricity in the U.S from fossil fuels releases a lot of greenhouse gases that are associated with the global warming. Nuclear power generates a considerable amount of electricity for America and it is clean and has other advantages. However, its opponents cite the many disadvantages that are associated with the historical use of nuclear power. But these cons can be mitigated partly or wholly, making nuclear power more appealing as an alternative to fossil fuels. Due to nuclear power’s feasibility, potential, and sustainability, its generation and use should be looked at as a great leap forward instead of people focusing on its demerits.

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