Energy is the most important resource category in the world. Without it, the Earth would practically halt in place. In this age of technology in which practically everything is powered by some form of industrially produced energy source, what we use as that resource for generation of power, and how much of it, is of dire importance. Nuclear power is one of the most cutting-edge, growing, and debated energy sources of the modern age. This form of electrical generation has many good and bad qualities about it. The value of the term nuclear power for society is, within itself, rather ambiguous. The following discussions of this subject will show that many aspects of nuclear power can lead one to believe that it can be either our savior in these dark times, or a danger to human society if used primarily over other sources.
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Before we delve into the many aspects of nuclear energy implementation, including its benefits and deficiencies, there is a long history of nuclear power that should first be analyzed for the background upon which the topic can be properly discussed. The use of nuclear energy as a source of electricity was began in the early 1900’s, when radioactive elements were found to release massive amounts of energy. This was seemingly irrelevant, though, because attempting to make use of such energy was impractical at the time, for the more energy that something produces at once, the shorter its life span is. The dream of harnessing this energy was still very much going strong throughout the scientific community, and in the 1930’s, this dream would become much closer to reality with the discovery of nuclear fission.
Nuclear fission was discovered in 1938 by German chemists Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann, after nearly five decades of work by many scientists on the science of radioactivity and the understanding of new nuclear physics that founded and described the structures within atoms. Nuclear fission is a reaction in which the nucleus of an atom splits into smaller parts, often producing free neutrons and photons. This creates a series of controlled chain reactions in which particles constantly collide, split, and release energy. During this World War II era of history, many leading European scientists immigrated to America, assisting in the United States’ rise as the leading power in nuclear technology in the world. Italian physicist Enrico Fermi and Austro-Hungarian physicist Leo Szilard were two scientists in particular who both emigrated to the U.S. and helped lead to the creation of the first man made nuclear reactor, called the Chicago Pile-1. This effort ended up becoming part of the Manhattan Project, which made enriched uranium and built large reactors to create plutonium for use in the first nuclear weapons. After World War II, the idea of using atomic energy for good, rather than just for war, was greatly advocated as a reason not to keep all nuclear research controlled by military organizations. However, most scientists agreed that civilian nuclear power would take at least a decade to effectively implement, and the fact that nuclear reactors also produced weapons-usable plutonium created a situation in which most national governments attempted to keep nuclear reactor research under tight government control. In the United States, nuclear research was first conducted by a government agency known as the United States Atomic Energy Commission (The agency was abolished by the Energy Reorganization Act of 1974, which assigned its functions to two new agencies: the Energy Research and Development Administration and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission). Nuclear research proceeded throughout the 1940’s and 1950’s rapidly in nations such as the United States, Soviet Union, and United Kingdom. In 1953, US President Dwight Eisenhower gave his “Atoms for Peace” speech at the United Nations, focusing on the need to develop “peaceful” uses of nuclear power urgently. This was soon followed by the 1954 Amendments to the Atomic Energy Act which allowed significant declassification of United States nuclear reactor technology and encouraged development of nuclear energy technology by the private sector. The 1950’s saw the creation of several atomic energy regulation agencies and organizations, including EURATOM, or the EAEC (The European Atomic Energy Community), and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). In 1956, the world’s first non-government run, commercial nuclear power plant, known as Calder Hall, was created in Sellafield, England. The first commercial nuclear generator to become operational in the United States was the Shippingport Reactor in Pennsylvania. Since then, nuclear power has grown into one of the more important sources of energy in the world, although not nearly as much as coal or natural gas. It provides nearly 15% of the world’s electricity generation, and 50% of that is from the U.S., Japan, and France. In fact, France runs on almost 80% nuclear power, making it the primary energy source there by a large margin.
Since 2001, the world has been in an era known as the “Nuclear Renaissance.” This “renaissance” refers to the current revival of the nuclear power industry since the beginning of the energy crisis of the early 21st century. Rising fossil fuel prices and the need to address the dangerously rising levels of greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere are driving forces of this movement. Nuclear power, in many ways, can be one of the cleanest cheapest and most overall effective methods of electrical energy production in the world. It is believed by many people worldwide that nuclear power could be a world changing energy alternative, for the better of the environment and the state of the global economy and how it could shift economic power away from less than favorable international entities. To describe the beneficial side of nuclear power, I will focus on three major arguments for its use: Atmosphere and environmental preservation, economic stability, and overall effectiveness of use.
The Earth is in a crisis right now. Fossil fuel emissions are destroying the ozone and making our world less habitable. The global environment decays while the international crude oil and coal business machine continue to pump dirty fuel and prosper. Nuclear power could be the best contender to defeat the need for these fossil fuels, and make way for the dominion of “clean energy.” Nuclear power plants do not burn any materials, so no combustion byproducts are created or released. This lack of greenhouse gas emissions is great for the planet’s atmosphere, as global warming and atmospheric smog are becoming ever more concerning issues. Nuclear power plants are also so clean and secure, that they can provide fantastic shelter for plants and wildlife. Many nuclear power plant companies have developed wetlands for many animals and plants to grow and flourish in. In fact, many of the animals that inhabit the nuclear power plant sites are of endangered and protected species, and are able to live and prosper undisturbed, in a clean environment. Also, the act of switching all electricity generation in our country to nuclear power would be equivalent to taking every single automobile in America off the roads; in terms of fossil fuel emissions. Nuclear reactions are overall, a very clean form of electricity production, and as fossil fuel burning becomes more and more dangerous and costly, it may become more evident that we may have to rely on nuclear power.
If there is one thing people like to do, it is to spend less money on utilities. One thing to perk up the ears of the common bill payer is this: Nuclear fuel is cheap. Very cheap in fact, much less so than burning coal or other fossil fuels. And it can’t be controlled by foreign entities that are in constant disarray and cause gas prices to fluctuate extremely. Most citizens can agree upon being interested in paying less for electricity. In these difficult financial times, having a cheap source of energy for our homes and other electricity using appliances could be a savior for many people. Construction of plants would create require a large workforce, and provide jobs for many, along with the thousands of jobs created for the staffs at the new plants. With the creation of almost 50 new small nuclear power plants replacing gas burning plants, approximately 3.9trillion cubic feet of natural gas could be displaced from use. This kind of separation from the petroleum producing nations of the world would help make the United States much less dependent on their resources, and it would be likely that the government would have to spend less money on involvement in the Middle East, as it is the central area of crude oil exports and can effect a nations economy significantly. These economic factors add up to show that nuclear power, with all aspects considered could become the most reasonable long term answer for alternative energy economically.
Nuclear power is, for lack of better words, powerful. In fact, it is the most powerful form of effectively attainable and sustainable energy on Earth. Nuclear fission produces so much energy in just a period of seconds that it would take endless amounts of coal or natural gas to even attempt to compare magnitude of electricity generation. It takes hundreds of tons of coal to equal the amount of energy that can be derived from a couple blocks of uranium, which just so happens to be significantly cheaper to mine than coal or oil drilling. When it comes down to the facts, nuclear energy is so powerful, so electrically efficient, that the sheer thought of how much we can get out of it could be the deciding factor of its furthered use in the future. When gas becomes depleted and expensive, it will be difficult not to turn to the powerful and abundant energy source that is nuclear fission reactions.
As clean and efficient as nuclear power sounds, there is a dark side to the use of this alternative energy source. Nuclear power plants, as useful as they are at quickly producing massive amounts of energy with little to no effect on the environment to be spoken of, can quickly become a double-edged sword. When one of these energy generating juggernauts has a meltdown, which can occur through natural disaster, careless and poorly regulated working procedures, and various other happenings, they ironically go from possible planet saver, to harbinger of death and destruction. Another highly controversial topic is the storage and dumping of nuclear waste. This product in nuclear fission reactions can be seen as a major hole in the push for nuclear power as a clean alternative energy source, and unlike a meltdown, waste production will happen, and is constantly occurring as reactions take place. There is also a wide open debate on whether or not Nuclear power plant commissions are economically responsible, and will be ultimately more financially plausible when compared to burning coal and oil. Costs of building new plants, the environmental controversies of nuclear waste, and the possibility of future meltdowns and those that have already occurred are the major issues with nuclear power, and could be the walls that keep it from progressing as a major contributor in global energy crisis relief.
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First, I will discuss the factor that perhaps frightens the general public away from nuclear power more than anything else: Meltdowns. A “nuclear meltdown” is the general term for any severe accident that might occur at a nuclear reactor that causes damage to the core brought upon it by overheating. The less commonly known technical terms used to define meltdowns are “partial core melt” or “core melt accident.” Several of these accidents have occurred since the creation of nuclear power plants, particularly in the United States and the former Soviet Union. Overall, there have only ever been 11 plant meltdowns and 3 “known” meltdowns of Soviet nuclear submarines. To thoroughly understand the dangers and effects of these meltdowns, we’ll look at the two must significant meltdowns in history: The Chernobyl disaster, and the currently ongoing meltdowns at the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant in Japan.
The Chernobyl disaster was a nuclear meltdown that happened at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in the old Ukrainian USSR or just Ukraine now. It is widely considered the worst nuclear power plant accident history. The disaster began during a systems test on 26 April 1986 at the Chernobyl plant. There was a sudden power output surge, and when an emergency shutdown was attempted, a more extreme spike in power output occurred. The resulting fire from the meltdown sent an overcast of highly radioactive smoke fallout into the atmosphere and over a massive geographical area. From 1986 to 2000, approximately 350,400 people were evacuated and resettled from the most contaminated areas of Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine. The accident raised concerns about the safety of the Soviet nuclear power industry, as well as nuclear power as a whole worldwide, slowing its expansion for years and forcing the USSR government to become less secretive about its nuclear program and its procedures. Russia and the former USSR states of Ukraine and Belarus have had to deal with the burden of Chernobyl aftermath and cleanup for decades. The initial effects of the disaster resulted in 31 deaths directly, including mostly reactor staff and emergency workers. While few deaths can be truly confirmed to be a direct result of Chernobyl radioactive fallout, just over about 50 actually, several organizations and publications have estimated the death tolls caused by Chernobyl’s aftermath to reach anywhere from a few thousand to hundreds of thousands. A Russian publication, Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the Environment, estimated that as many as over 985,000 deaths have occurred as a result of the disaster between 1986 and 2004. Greenpeace, an anti-nuclear power environmental organization, reports a toll of 200,000 deaths, which could be, considering their stance against this form of energy, an exaggeration to help garner support for their cause by making nuclear disasters appear as catastrophic as possible. The disaster was caused by poorly executed reactor staff procedures. This is one of the major concerns of using nuclear power plants widely across a nation. The incident at Chernobyl made it appear that any simple mishap from human error could cause a massively destructive chain reaction that could contaminate a huge area for years. An experiment was supposed to be conducted to test a potential emergency core cooling feature in the reactor. Poorly executed instructions and inadequate conditions for safe nuclear reactions created by these experimental failures caused reactor four at the Chernobyl power plant to experience a fatal power surge. This power spike led to multiple explosions in the reactors core, which led to the events in the reactor that allowed the total nuclear meltdown. This dispersed significant quantities of dangerous radioactive fuel and various core materials into the atmosphere and ignited the combustible graphite moderator. The fire from the graphite moderator increased the radioactive emissions, as they were carried great distances by the smoke, since the reactor had not been closed off by any sort of containment vessel. For years, Chernobyl has caused major damage to the surrounding environment, and serious health issues have been seen in humans and animals in the area. After the disaster, four square kilometers of forest directly downwind from the Chernobyl reactor turned a reddish-brown and died off, giving its current name, the “Red Forest”. Many animals in the most severely plagued areas died or stopped reproducing altogether. Various mutations have also been seen in organisms in affected areas throughout Europe, including heavy rises in birth diseases in places as far as Germany and Turkey. The disaster also had significant economic consequences on the countries involved. While not well defined, it is at least known that the catastrophe cost the countries billions of dollars. Ukraine still spends about 7% of their budget on the Chernobyl aftermath, and over $13 billion has been spent on the disaster in Belarus since 1991, with 22% of the country’s budget spending having been related to Chernobyl in that year. The Chernobyl disaster is without a doubt the main argument against nuclear power based on the danger of procedural and technical error.
If Chernobyl is the number one reason to not use nuclear energy based on the consequences of human error, then the disaster occurring in Japan is surely the most obvious choice of argument against nuclear power because of inevitable natural disasters. 11 March 2011 was one of the darkest days in the history of the nation of Japan. On that day, a disaster known formally as the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami because of its epicenter 45 miles east of the Oshika Peninsula of Tohoku, or “Higashi Nihon Daishinsai” (literally translates to “Eastern Japan Great Earthquake Disaster”) to the Japanese, struck the main Japanese island of Honshu. The initial quake was measured at Richter magnitude 9.0, tied for the 4th most powerful earthquake ever, and caused mass damage throughout the entire country. The quake also sparked a powerful tsunami with waves reaching up to 124 feet, and traveled up to 6 miles inland. The natural disaster caused what will be remembered as one of the most infamous nuclear catastrophes in history, as meltdowns at the Fukushima I Nuclear Power Plant in Japan occurred continuously for weeks. The Fukushima I Nuclear Power Plant, or Fukushima Dai-ichi, is a now disabled power plant in the Futaba District of the Fukushima Prefecture, Japan. Fukushima I was commissioned in 1971 and was the first nuclear plant to be built and completely run by the Tokyo Electric Power Company or, TEPCO. It consists of six separate boiling water reactors. These reactors combined for a total power of 4.7 GWe, and made Fukushima I a member of the fifteen largest nuclear power plants in the world. While it has now been reported that the nuclear disaster at Fukushima I was not the worst in history, the many aspects of it, and the sheer size of the massive power station and its several components, easily make it the most complex and difficult to manage. The disaster at Fukushima is a story of a power plant that was not designed to withstand the full extent of an extremely powerful earthquake or tsunami, two things that frequently occur in Japan, ironically. Prior to the quake, reactors 4, 5, and 6 were already shut down for inspection, and once the earthquake was detected, 1, 2, and 3 went on auto-shutdown immediately. Once the reactors shut down, generation of electricity was halted. The plant would usually access an external electrical supply to power the cooling and control systems, but the earthquake dealt huge damages to the region’s power grid. Soon after, all alternating current power sources to the reactors were nonexistent. The Fukushima I plant was also protected by a seawall which was constructed with the capability to withstand tsunami waves of 19 feet. Unfortunately, the tsunami waves that hit the plant were much larger than that at 49 feet, and easily made it over the wall. The water then flooded the entire plant, including the lower power plant generator and electrical buildings. Emergency generators stopped functioning because of this and the reactors began to overheat from the decay of the nuclear fuel inside of them. Soon enough, partial core meltdown arose in reactors 1, 2, and 3. Hydrogen explosions obliterated the upper cladding of the buildings containing reactors 1, 3, and 4 and another explosion damaged the containment inside reactor 2. Also, the spent fuel rods contained in spent fuel pools of the reactors 1 through 4 began to overheat as water levels in the pools dropped, and fires broke out at reactor 4. Fears of radiation leaks caused the Japanese government to issue a 12 mile radius evacuation around the plant. Since April 11, 2011, officials in Japan have assessed the nuclear danger level at reactors 1-3 at 7, the highest level of danger on the International Nuclear Event Scale. Parts of Japan as far as 50 kilometers from the plant had measured radioactive levels enough to cause great concern. All food grown in the area has been banned from being sold, increased levels of radiation were found in cow’s milk, tap water has been advised to not be used when preparing food for infants in Tokyo, and plutonium contamination has been discovered in the soil at plant sites. Experts have stated that it will take decades to clean up the area with a workforce composed of thousands of people. Cleanup time span estimations have been reported from anywhere between 10 years from Toshiba, the Japanese reactor making company, and almost 100 years from several nuclear experts and scholars. The international response to the Fukushima I nuclear disaster has caused a serious concern worldwide over the developments at the nuclear reactors and the risk of escalation of these problems. The accidents have also prompted re-evaluation of current and planned nuclear energy programs in most nations throughout the world. This disaster shows that nuclear power plants are no match for the destructive forces of nature, and that there are certain places where possibly no safety measures taken, even if better than the ones at the Fukushima I plant, can keep nuclear power plants from going into a meltdown. The Fukushima 1 nuclear accidents could seriously halt the current nuclear energy renaissance, and even permanently damage the hopes of nuclear power as a reliable energy source, especially if certain countries do not feel comfortable building plants because of their common natural occurrences.
Next on the list of issues is something commonly known as radioactive waste. Radioactive nuclear waste is a product of the nuclear fissions process and is the most questionable aspect of properly functioning power plants, and most concerning for the environment, as it is constantly produced and very dangerous. Radioactive waste comprises of several radioisotopes, which can be defined as unstable configurations of elements that decay, emitting radiation which can be harmful to organisms and our environment. These radioisotopes emit different kinds of radiation, at different levels, which last for varying amounts of time. The main problem with waste is that once it is produced, storage becomes a problem. Radioactivity goes down in severity over time, so the waste needs to be isolated for a period of time until it is no longer hazardous. Radioactive wastes from other processes that produce it often only take a few hours to a couple years to diminish in radioactivity, classifying them as low-level wastes. But much of the waste created from nuclear fission is more commonly known as “high-level” waste, and can take thousands of years to become safe. Typically, the plan for getting rid of high-level waste is deep underground burial, or storage in secure places, completely isolated from environmental contact. But space to just shove the waste away and forget about it is becoming limited, and cannot be done forever. In 2009, U.S. President Barack Obama declared that the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository could no longer be used as the answer for civilian nuclear waste disposal. There is now no national plan for disposing of nuclear waste, and plants are required to keep waste stored on power plant property. Many controversies surround the future of waste storage and the many issues illegal dumping can cause for the environment’s health. This complete lack for a viable solution for waste right now is the easiest and most logical point of irrationality for anti-nuclear power protesters to attack, and unless there is a good way to get rid of it discovered soon, it could destroy the industry.
Just like how Nuclear power can be seen as advantageous for the economy, many points can be made to say that it would be quite the opposite. The economics behind the construction of nuclear power plants is indeterminate at best. While the costs of operating a plant and managing its resources are fairly cheap, the capital costs involved with commissioning new plants to be constructed are extremely high. Because of these large capital costs for nuclear power, and the long construction period before profit can be made, servicing the capital costs of a power plant is the most important consideration that should be taken when deciding upon the economic merits of nuclear power. America is a nation with a general public who is very much focused on their short term well being, as are industries. While the returned revenue of a nuclear power plant may be excellent, they come in rather slowly when looking at the time it takes to pay off the initial costs of construction. Since business investors tend to not prefer waiting, and many couldn’t care less about global warming, it is hard to attract them to nuclear energy. All of these factors together go to show that, while very powerful, nuclear energy could be an ultimately ineffective answer that could leave a path of destruction in its wake.
Mankind is reaching a critical point in their time on this planet. Energy is the biggest question for us now, and it will need to be answered soon. Could nuclear power be that answer? Events in the next few decades will more than likely tell. The Nuclear Renaissance is either near its climax, or its end. The Fukushima crisis could be the blow that knocks down nuclear energy like a house of cards, or the nations of the world could continue progress regardless. U.S President Obama has decided to continue funding the progress of nuclear programs, and China is building 20 more power plants themselves, on the quest for cleaner energy. Another factor that could change everything is possible creation of nuclear fusion. Nuclear fusion would produce even more energy than fission, and with much less danger and less radioactive waste. Surely whoever discovers the secrets behind fusion will change the world without a doubt. At that point, nuclear power will be undeniable. But that is assuming such a thing happens. Nuclear power as it stands now could go in many directions for future use. Regardless of its merits and its follies, the decision whether to widely access the power of nuclear energy will be made in the coming years, and we will all have to live with the results.
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