Why is nuclear energy experiencing a resurgence?

Cost overruns and several nuclear plant mishaps shut down construction of nuclear reactors in the United States over three decades ago. Money, allocated by Congress for new nuclear construction is finally being allocated to nuclear building projects. So why has nuclear energy suddenly become popular again? As unlikely as it may seem, nuclear power is seen as a green source of energy.

nuclear power

Koeberg Nuclear Power Station, Cape Town

Europe and the United States both have plans to build nuclear reactors. Although construction of new nuclear reactors came to a screeching halt thirty years ago, at least two in the US are expected to receive funding.

According to The New York Times, Nuclear Energy is considered to be a green source of energy because it has low to no carbon emissions, a green house gas (GHG). Since every country is trying to cut down on GHGs because of the environmental and health toll that air pollution has on our planet and populace, looking to nuclear power is viewed by many as the logical place to start.

“There is an increasing number of people who have spent their lives as environmental advocates who believe that carbon is such an urgent problem that they have to rethink their skepticism about nuclear power,” said Jonathan Lash, the president of the World Resources Institute, who puts himself in that category.

Other environmentalists like Karen Hadden, executive director of the Sustainable Energy and Economic Development Coalition, fear that nuclear projects will ultimately end up diverting money from renewable energy sources like wind and solar. That could be true but money for new nuclear projects was allocated by Congress in 2005. It’s just taken until 2009 to get the funding requirements and procedures in place.

Unlike wind, solar, and wave energy, nuclear energy provides a dependable consistent source of tremendous power. For that reason, nuclear energy is seen as a replacement for coal and fossil fuel powered plants currently in existence.

Countries like Germany and Spain are phasing out their nuclear reactors while others are ramping up their building programs. Finland and France have nuclear reactors under construction. Both projects are currently experiencing problems. While the U.K. has 10 reactors that they are planning to build.

One of the other factors that may be coming into play, is that our current nuclear power plants are aging and several are due to be decommissioned. Since nuclear energy provides over 100,000 megawatts of energy here in the US, that’s a lot of power that has to be replaced. The most consistent energy sources are coal, fossil fuel, and nuclear energy. Of the three, nuclear is the one with the least GHG emissions.

Source: Green.Blorge

How does nuclear power work?

Essentially, nuclear power seems quite simple. Nuclear fission heats water to generate steam, the steam turns turbines connected to a generator which in turn produces electrical power.

Nuclear fission is the splitting of atoms, a process in which a great deal of energy in the form of heat is produced. Where things get complex are the controls and resources needed to keep the fission reaction safe.

Advantages of nuclear energy

– The actual generation of electricity using nuclear energy involves little in the way of carbon emissions.

– A single nuclear power plant can generate a huge amount of electricity.

– Running costs are low.

– Nuclear reactors have a long life span.

– Fuel appears to be abundant; however this is hotly debated.

Disadvantages of nuclear power

Mining

While generation of power is comparatively low emissions; mining for the uranium is not. Uranium mining destroys landscapes and uranium and other radioactive substances are released in the process. The mining and extraction process requires large volumes of water and contaminated water can leak from tailings dams into groundwater.

Accidents

In a word – Chernobyl. It can happen again; particularly in countries where laws relating to safety are lax. While the Chernobyl accident occurred decades ago, its legacy continues and may even worsen if the old plant isn’t properly dealt with.

Water consumption

Nuclear power plants are thirsty operations. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, for every three units of thermal energy generated by the reactor core, two units of waste heat go into the environment. Cooling systems for plants require huge volumes of water and a nuclear power station will use more water than a similar sized coal fired power station.

Water intake and discharge has a negative effect on aquatic ecosystems – through the processing of the water itself which kills organisms and the raising of waterway temperatures during discharge.

In a world where fresh water supplies are becoming increasingly unreliable in many places; there’s also no guarantee a plant that is built today will have the water it needs in a decade from now without causing even more related environmental problems.

Waste

The issue of radioactive waste is an important one as it will effect generations to come for thousands of years. The more nuclear power plants we have, the more waste is generated and it only takes a single incident to affect a wide area. The waste can also be used by hostile parties to create “dirty bombs”. Aside from the human costs of such devices being used, the environmental impact needs to be considered.

Time for construction

A solar power plant can be planned and constructed in a matter of months; a rooftop solar power system in a matter of weeks. A nuclear power plant can take decades – it’s not a short term solution for our energy needs by any means.

Costs

Building a nuclear power plant is an expensive undertaking, usually requiring a good deal of taxpayer money. Because of the long planning and building process; costs invariably blow out.

Misuse

Nuclear energy based power generation is thought to be a front in some countries for nuclear weapons programs. You cannot build a nuclear missile from solar panels, nor with the equipment used to make them. A nuclear energy free future removes some opportunities for covert weapons development.

Nuclear disarmament will likely fail if nuclear technologies are continually promoted as a solution to the world’s energy needs. The lessons of Nagasaki and Hiroshima need to be heeded, not just for the sake of humanity, but for the environment.

Availability of uranium

While some say we have an “endless” supply of uranium, the same sort of spiel was once said about oil. Perhaps uranium is a plentiful resource, but how much of it is relatively easy to get to? Will we see a tar sands equivalent in uranium extraction in the not too distant future if nuclear power plants become more commonplace?

There are advantages and disadvantages for all power sources and I’d be the first to admit to the fact the oil and coal industry has wreaked far more damage than the nuclear energy sector has done – to date. However, nuclear power isn’t as common.

Source: Green Living Tips

At first glance, nuclear energy does seem ‘clean & green’ but upon further investigation, it’s not without its serious impacts, one being its high water consumption.  Perhaps as nuclear technology advances, with environmental issues in mind, it will become a cleaner, safer and more acceptable power source.  In the interim, nuclear energy is an important source of energy while better, sustainable energy generation methods are developed.  Hopefully fossil fuel/coal fired power plants will also become more efficient and eco-friendly in the short term until they can be phased out.  However, this will depend on the will of governments and corporations (who have a vested interest in fossil fuels) to change.

, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,