The question of sustainability is a persistent yet difficult concept to achieve in environmental matters. This is especially the case when it comes to the development of energy options that can meet the needs of present and future generations adequately. Therefore, the paper shall investigate nuclear power as one of the solutions to this problem and several issues will be analyzed in terms of its sustainability.
Why the nuclear energy option may be feasible in the future
Most other sources of energy currently in use are either too carbon-intensive or too costly. For instance, solar energy may be a clean source of energy but it is highly dependent on special equipment that makes this energy source too exorbitant. On the other hand, other sources of energy such as coal are readily available now; however, there is sufficient evidence to indicate that this may not necessarily be the case in the future.
Alongside that argument is the fact that coal emits some of the highest levels of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere thus implying that it causes harm to the human body and may continue to do so even among future generations. Studies show that coal alongside other carbon-intensive sources such as natural gas and oil will probably run out in hundreds of years. These concerns, therefore, necessitate research and development of a different energy source that will possess none of the latter mentioned problems; nuclear power is a possibility.
As the name suggests, nuclear power is derived from a nuclear reaction where thorium, uranium, hydrogen, or plutonium are fused or split into other substances. So far, uranium is the most efficient as it is stated that the latter element can yield energy that exceeds coal-based energy by about ten million. Although natural uranium is a combination of both U 235 and U238, only the latter is required in the production of nuclear power. The main advantage of this source is that a substantial portion of natural uranium contains the desirable isotope which is U238. In fact, only zero-point seven percent of the combination is U235. This implies that very little wastage of the substance occurs, and energy extraction can be quite feasible in the present and the future.
However, it should be noted that a large chunk of all reactors does not use natural uranium. These plants work with enriched uranium which has a higher proportion of the undesired isotope (i.e., 4-5%). The major problem with this type is that it does require the utilization of a separation plant which leads to the utilization of heavy water other than ordinary water in the separation process. Consequently, one eventually finds that their energy costs are a bit higher than previously assumed.
Issues of sustainability in the future
Studies indicate that most of the nuclear plants available now can keep on working for centuries thus indicating that there is a lot of promise in the use of this form of energy for the world’s energy supplies. The latter figures were derived from a very lengthy study of uranium fission by Bernard Cohen. He based his assumptions on the employment of seawater uranium. Currently, speaking, there is sufficient uranium to last the human population a thousand years. Therefore, one can assert that this source of energy is reliable in the future when it comes to its core function. Besides, since only one large plant is needed to produce about one million kilowatts of energy, then it can be argued that humanity will be very secure when it depends on this source of energy to a larger extent.
Challenges in making nuclear power a larger source of energy
Statistics indicate that only seventeen percent of the world’s energy supply today emanates from nuclear production. This implies that a number of obstacles are preventing the production and development of this form of energy since growth is too slow. However, some countries have currently taken bold steps in propagating and adopting the use of nuclear energy. If these countries succeed in offering their citizens sustainable energy without any major incidences, then it is likely that in the future other countries may copy them thus leading to a wider degree of application. One cannot predict the face of politics, so it is best to leave this matter to chance and see how things turn out.
The production of nuclear energy occurs in such a manner that the split neutrons produced from the fission of the uranium atom fly off at very high speeds. This kinetic energy is what then changes into heat energy that is captured by fuel rods.
The latter then heat water that can then be turned into steam and then used for turning turbines that generate electricity. The biggest problem currently facing nuclear power production is dispensing the spent fuel rods needed to heat water for steam. Only a few plants have produced a sustainable solution to this problem. In Japan, for example, the used fuel rods are normally shipped to Europe where they are reprocessed such that leftover uranium and plutonium can be extracted. Once extraction is complete, the latter products can then be reused again to run another plant. Such reprocessing may likely be taken up by more processers in the future since several environmental movements are already advocating for it presently.
The problem of nuclear waste has also been brought out as a cause for concern if nuclear power production is to be adopted internationally in the future. The reaction that occurs in power production is such that some fission products must be emanated. Those fission products are usually still radioactive and also produce excessive heat. One of the major oppositions to this form of power has been based on the disposal of such waste products.
The most effective way of handling such a problem is by making sure that first the products cool down and all radioactive processes cease. This is done by placing them in tanks filled with water. After the products have cooled then they can be taken for reprocessing. Power plants are at an advantage if they choose to wait for long periods before taking the products for reprocessing.
Currently, US-based nuclear plants are yet to come up with large areas of disposal as it would be better if these fission products are placed underground. However, some areas such as Nevada have already been selected. Other countries like Canada have already approved the creation of such tunnels and it is only a matter of time before this can become a reality. However, before this is done, there is a need for government approval.
One of the biggest consumers of energy worldwide is the United States. The country is in dire need of an energy alternative. However, most political leaders in the US have been hesitant to give the go-ahead on building nuclear waste deposits. This is because most of them assume that their actions will prevent other nations from engaging in nuclear proliferation. It is difficult to determine whether future administrators will be a bit lenient towards the creation of such deposits but if this will be the case, then most of the waste-related problems will be solved.
On the other hand, it is necessary to acknowledge that the latter political consent may not be obtained. In this regard, it may then be necessary to look for another alternative to deal with the waste problem. Several experts have asserted that breeder reactors are the wave of the future in nuclear energy production. These reactors are essential in converting more of the uranium into plutonium. Since the latter can be fissionable, then this is used in fuel rods again and the process is made more efficient. The major challenge with such an approach to nuclear production is its high costs. Large-scale arrangements must be done by concerned parties to deal with this problem. In the short term, it is unlikely that breeder reactors will gain a lot of clouts since there are plenty of uranium reserves currently. However, in the long term, this may prove to be an environmentally friendly way of dealing with the nuclear waste problems as uranium alternatives will be sought.
Some experts have also designed the integral fast reactor. This invention allows reprocessing on-site and no plutonium can leave such premises. The latter is by far the most feasible and environmentally friendly option. However, a lack of political will prevent the creation of such reactors in the country. Given the urgent need for clean and efficient energy alternatives, it is likely that in the future, more promotion will be done for this reactor and if this is the case, then it likely that the production of nuclear power through an integral fast reactor may become more of a reality then than it is today.
One of the obstacles impeding large-scale nuclear production in the world is the issue of safety. Some historical cases have been used as reasons to stop the development of nuclear energy with the most notable being the Chernobyl disaster. In the future, the concerns raised against this accident will likely be placed in the background since more people will understand the truth and the science behind it. First of all, the Chernobyl reaction occurred at a point in history when nuclear power plants were using primitive technologies. A lot has changed since then and it is highly unlikely to witness such an accident in the future.
At Chernobyl, the reactor was designed in such a manner that it operated on a positive void coefficient. This implies that excess heat in the reactor caused the water to turn into steam thus speeding up the reaction. These days, however, nuclear power plants operate under a negative void coefficient in that excessive heat immediately causes the reactions to stop. In the future, more people are likely to know the difference between recent reactor models and the Chernobyl model thus indicating that their fear of this kind of energy disaster will be tremendously reduced.
On top of this fact, the Chernobyl reactor did not have a containment shell. Consequently, all radioactive material exploded out of its immediate location. This fault has already been dealt with in modern reactors and matters of containment need not be a problem in the future production of nuclear energy.
Another major fear that has prevented nuclear power development is the issue of bombs. Some groups have asserted that nuclear power may be useful but it could easily be diverted into other harmful practices such as making bombs. There is very validity in this argument since the only country that has ever achieved this successfully was Russia and that was only because their reactors were created for this very purpose. In the future, likely, such fears may persist, however education of the masses will be essential in dispensing them.
Most misgivings about nuclear power have been based on a lack of knowledge on the subject matter. Technology has advanced rapidly thus implying that nuclear power plants are now much safer than they were before. If political interference can be minimized, then this will go a long way in promoting efficient nuclear energy use in the future thus contributing to a sustainable earth.