Nuclear Energy: Benefits and Threats

Introduction

Nuclear power is an alternative source of energy that involves generation of electricity from exothermic nuclear reactions (Boyle et. al 2003). Nuclear fission is the most common and most effective method of energy generation because it produces the highest quantity of energy with few inputs compared to other methods such as nuclear fusion and nuclear decay (Elliot 2010). Nuclear energy accounts for 20% of global energy and has been described as one of the most viable and sustainable energy sources.

The main challenges faced in the nuclear sector include worker safety, disposal of waste materials, and use of nuclear power to further political interests. Exploitation of nuclear energy has elicited intense debates from experts in various fields who give reasons to either support or oppose nuclear programmes. Nuclear energy has several environmental and economic benefits that make it a viable option for electricity generation. It does not emit greenhouse gases, promotes economic growth through job creation, it is powerful and efficient, and generates cheap electricity (Elliot 2010).

Environmental effects of nuclear energy

One of the advantages of adopting nuclear energy as a sustainable source of electricity is its zero emission of greenhouse gases (Mooiman 2013). It has the lowest impact on the environment compared to other sources of energy such as wind, water, and fossil fuels. First, nuclear plants do not emit greenhouse gases that comprise the main source of environmental pollution (Ferguson 2011). Second, they require small pieces of land for construction hence their insignificant impact on the environment (Boyle 2012). Nuclear power is ecologically efficient because its environmental impact is negligible when compared to the impact of other energy sources. Its effects on air, water, animal habitats, and animal species are negligible compared to the effects of other energy sources. Energy generation processes that involve combustion result in emission of gases such as carbon dioxide, sulphur dioxide, and nitrogen oxide that pollute the environment (Boyle et. al 2003).

Use of nuclear processes ensures that there are no emissions that could pollute the environment. Another benefit of nuclear power is the conservation of water bodies, land, bird species, and natural habitats (Boyle 2012). The water used to cool machines does not come into contact with radioactive elements and therefore does not cause pollution when released into water bodies. In addition, cooling avoids destruction of aquatic life. Nuclear power plants are very effective because they generate large amounts of electricity from plants constructed on small pieces of land (Elliot 2010). Energy sources such as wind and water require huge tracts of land for construction of plants and other related facilities. Life-cycle emissions analyses have revealed that nuclear power plants release greenhouse gases only during the processes of construction and fuelling (Boyle 2012). This challenge is experienced in all plants that generate energy. Therefore, it is not unique to nuclear plants.

Research studies have revealed that these emissions are released in amounts that compare to those released by wind, geothermal, and hydropower plants. On the other hand, they are fewer than those produced by coal. According to a 2012 report released by the Department of Energy’s Renewable Energy Laboratory, the life-cycle emissions of nuclear power plants compare to those of other renewable energy sources except fossil fuels (Murray & Holbert 2014). The World Nuclear Association has stated that nuclear power is sustainable and has great potential for purposes related to electricity generation (Elliot 2010). One of the arguments presented by opponents of nuclear power is that in future, nuclear plants will be forced to use a certain grade of uranium that requires high energy amounts to process. They claim that when this happens, it will increase the amount of greenhouse emissions. Several studies have found out that utilization of low-grade uranium ores results in few greenhouse emissions (Boyle 2012).

Nuclear fuel and radioactive waste

Nuclear fuel contains fissile elements that comprise the main source of radioactive waste. Nuclear fuel has high energy density and easily undergoes fission to release nuclear power (Boyle 2012). Moreover, its composition makes it easy to control electricity generation processes. Certain isotopes are preferred because they undergo fission easily and generate huge amounts of energy. Used nuclear fuel contains several elements that include unused uranium and plutonium, transplutoniun metals, and actinides that are radioactive (Boyle et. al 2003). One of the arguments presented by opponents of nuclear power is that nuclear processes result in generation of low-level and high-level radioactive waste materials (Elliot 2010).

Radioactive elements are contained in used nuclear fuel that contains actinides such as uranium, curium, and plutonium. However, they ignore the stringent waste disposal that governments implement in order to avoid pollution. The nuclear power sector can account for its waste because it is properly disposed in line with government regulations. Technological advancements are making it easier for nuclear plants to dispose waster materials (Elliot 2010). For instance, two designs of nuclear reactors that facilitate the recycling of waste products have been developed. Research studies have revealed that waste from nuclear plants account for less than 1 percent of the entire industrial waste generated from all energy sources (Mooiman 2013).

One of the challenges of using nuclear energy to generate electricity is lack of proper methods of waste disposal. Many plants accumulate waste in their plants in order to avoid poor disposal. Environmental experts have suggested the use of deep geological repositories in disposal of nuclear waste materials (Boyle 2012). Another potential option for proper waste disposal is reprocessing of waste materials to recover unused uranium and plutonium. Reprocessing reduces the amount of radioactivity elements in used fuel (Boyle 2012). This approach has been successfully executed in Britain, India, and France. The concerns raised by environmentalists have been addressed according and the impact of nuclear power on the environment is negligible. New technologies will facilitate development of better methods of recycling and disposing nuclear waste (Elliot 2010). Waste nuclear fuel contains uranium elements that are radioactive. The nuclear energy sector encounters waste disposal challenges because of government’s failure to speed up the process of constructing a disposal unit at Yucca Mountain in Nevada.

Nuclear waste management is the most important issue that arises in discussions involving nuclear power to generate electricity. In many nuclear plants, used fuel is usually stored in concrete tanks lined with steel for safe disposal (Boyle 2012). This reduces the chances of pollution because each plant stores its waste products within its facilities. It is the responsibility of the United States Department of Energy to develop an appropriate disposal facility for nuclear waste (Boyle et. al 2003). However, the federal government has not yet created such a facility even though it owns and operates several nuclear research facilities.

Currently, nuclear power facilities apply integrated sued fuel management systems that involve storage of used fuel in tanks lined with steel (Boyle 2012). Other aspects of the management system include recycling of used fuel and geologic disposal. Disposal has to be done appropriately because these wastes contain high amounts of radioactive elements that have adverse health consequences (Boyle et. al 2003). The federal government is supposed to collect used fuel from nuclear power facilities for safe disposal. However, it has not yet developed a waste disposal integrated program to cater for the country’s huge quantities of nuclear waste. Research is underway to develop technologically advanced means of disposing nuclear waste such as recycling (Boyle et. al 2003).

Nuclear fission technology

Among the three methods of generating electricity from nuclear plants, nuclear fission is the most commonly used and accounts for approximately 20 percent of the net global energy (Elliot 2010). The table below shows the percentage of energy produced by each energy sources in the year 2011 in New Hampshire.

Table 1: energy sources’ capacity in New Hampshire, U.S. in 2011 (Mooiman, 2013)

Nuclear fission involves the splitting of neutrons into nuclei to generate energy. The process also generates neutrons that undergo further splitting. The main advantage of this process is that it can be altered to increase the rate of fission in order to produce more electricity (Elliot 2010).

Economic benefits

Nuclear power has several economic benefits that include generation of cheap electricity, creation of jobs, and generation of revenue that is critical for economic growth. A report released by the American Council on Global Nuclear Competitiveness projected that by the year 2030, America’s nuclear industry will have employed more than 350,000 people in different jobs (Ferguson, 2011). Examples of professionals who work in nuclear plants include product designers, engineers, manufacturing experts, machine operators, and plant maintenance personnel. Nuclear power produces cheap electricity that improves the efficiency of the national power system that is important for economic growth (McLeish 2007). Its great potential has led to projections of the sector’s dominance as the major source of energy by the year 2050.

 Projected nuclear energy capacity (Technology Roadmap 2010)
Graph 1: projected nuclear energy capacity (Technology Roadmap 2010)

Finally, nuclear power generates a lot of revenue from the sale of electricity because it is not affected by factors such as fluctuation of raw materials and unfavourable weather conditions (Elliot 2010). In the past few years, the costs of operating nuclear plants have reduced significantly due to application of advanced technologies in electricity generation (McLeish 2007). The main challenge is the high cost of constructing nuclear plants. Despite the challenge, the advantages outweigh the disadvantages.

Safety, health, security, political, and social issues

Safety and security risk is one of the reasons that opponents of nuclear power give to support their argument regarding the unsuitability and instability of nuclear power. Safety issues arise because of past nuclear and radiation accidents that had severe health consequences on victims. Only 99 cases of accidents have been reported in all nuclear plants worldwide (McLeish 2007). This number is small compared to incidents reported in plants used to generate other energy sources. The accidents have caused several deaths with more than 50% of cases being reported in the United States (McLeish 2007). Analysis of the energy sector has shown that with regard to the number of deaths reported per unit of energy produced, nuclear energy is the safest and most secure energy source (Elliot 2010). Opponents fail to appreciate the safety and security measures applied to protect workers. All nuclear plants are operated by highly trained professionals and are designed in ways that reduce the probability of accidents occurring (Boyle et. al 2003).

With regard to operational safety, the federal government implements stringent regulation measures in order to improve the safety of workers and communities living near nuclear plants. In addition, the sector’s stakeholders are committed to maintaining high safety standards in order to keep the plants safe and secure for everyone involved (Boyle et. al 2003). The Fukushima disaster served as a wakeup call to operators of nuclear plants because after the accident, additional safety measures were implemented in order to make the plants safer. Another aspect of nuclear plants’ safety and security standards is the implementation of emergency measures (Boyle et. al 2003). All nuclear plants in the United States have detailed plans for handling emergencies.

Therefore, the numerous safety, security, and health issues raised by opponents are well addressed. Finally, intensive training and screening of workers ensures that only highly qualified individuals are employed (McLeish 2007). In addition, screening aids in establishing their levels of integrity. Adverse health effects of radiation include cancer and genetic mutations (Boyle 2012). Operators are at high risk of exposure to radiation elements. However, the risk of developing cancer due to such exposure is very low. The aforementioned safety and security measures are aimed at lowering the risk of exposure to radiation materials.

A critical issue that involves exploration of nuclear power is the propensity by certain countries to use nuclear power research to further their political interest (McLeish 2007). Russia, China, France, Japan, and Ukraine possess research facilities that are aimed at developing more effective and efficient technologies. The U.S has been on the forefront in fighting the development of nuclear weapons. As more countries embrace nuclear energy, more stringent measures need to be put in place to avoid proliferation of nuclear weapons. One approach to this end has been the collaboration of several countries including Russia, France, the U.S. and France in creating common nuclear power projects (Boyle 2012). These collaborations promote social cohesion by initiating interactions that involve exchange of technology, information, and professional labour.

Conclusion

Nuclear energy is an alternative source of energy that is exploited by several developed countries in the world. It has great potential for generation of electricity because of its efficiency and reliability. Nuclear fission is the most commonly applied method of generating electricity from nuclear power because it generates high amounts with a low volume of inputs. Nuclear power has several economic benefits that include cheap electricity, creation of jobs, and generation of revenue. One of the advantages of adopting nuclear energy as a sustainable alternative source of energy is because it is environmentally friendly. Compared to other sources of energy such as wind, water, and fossil fuels, generation of electricity from nuclear energy has the lowest impact on the environment. In all nuclear plants, used fuel is usually stored in concrete tanks lined with steel for safe disposal. This reduces the chances of pollution because such storage eliminates the need for transportation of waste products. All nuclear plants are operated by highly trained professionals and are designed in ways that reduce the occurrence of accidents. Safety and security are priorities in the nuclear energy sector.

References

Boyle, G 2012, Renewable Energy: Power for a Sustainable Future, OUP Oxford, New York.

Boyle, G, Everett, B, & Ramage, J 2003, Energy Systems and Sustainability, Oxford University Press, New York.

Elliot, D 2010, Nuclear or Not: Does Nuclear Power Have a Place in a Sustainable Energy Future, Palgrave Macmillan, New York.

McLeish, E 2007, The Pros and Cons of Nuclear Power, The Rosen Publishing Group: New York.

Mooiman, M 2013, I’ve Got the Power: Electricity Production in New Hampshire. Web.

Murray, R & Holbert, K 2014, Nuclear Energy: An Introduction to the Concepts, Systems, and Applications of Nuclear Processes, Elsevier, New York.

Richards, J 2009, Nuclear Energy, Marshall Cavendish, New York.

Technology Roadmap: Nuclear Energy 2010. Web.