An explosive issue
Nuclear power isn’t a bad thing
Nuclear power is not something to avoid: nuclear power is a good alternative to fossil fuels as it produces little pollution, there are ample fuel sources to meet future demand, and the perceived lack of safety is overestimated.
It is natural to question the safety of nuclear power when a mishap occurs, such as the recent events in Japan. Consider, though, that the earthquake that hit Japan was tied for the fourth biggest earthquake in recorded history, and it also produced a tsunami more than 30 feet high. These are not everyday occurrences so the plant was not designed to withstand them. Instead, it was designed to survive any earthquake up to magnitude 7.9, according to the Wall Street Journal. It would be folly to think that the problems with the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant were a result of poor design. Nuclear power is safe enough to use on a larger scale in the United States, as long as the plants are built to withstand most major disasters intact.
Nuclear power is also one of the cleanest forms of energy. I am not saying it doesn’t produce some waste, but it creates a relatively small amount compared to the energy it produces. The 104 nuclear power plants in the United States produce around 2,300 metric tons of used fuel every year, while providing slightly over 20 percent of the total energy, according to the Nuclear Energy Institute. In addition, nuclear power doesn’t emit any of the three major air pollutants: carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide.
The main drawback to nuclear power is that the fuel source, uranium-235, is a limited resource. However, a joint report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and the International Atomic Energy Agency issued in 2009, concluded that there is sufficient uranium to meet the world’s current consumption demands for at least another 100 years and additional research can improve the efficiency of reactors so fuel supplies can last further into the future. There is also a program between the U.S. and Russia called “Megatons for Megawatts” that was started in 1993. This program recycles weapons-grade uranium from dismantled warheads into fuel to use in nuclear reactors. As of December 31, 2010, 412 metric tons of high-grade uranium have been turned into 11, 905 metric tons of low-grade uranium fuel; this amounts to 16,494 nuclear warheads dismantled. We can increase fuel supplies by creating a larger scale version of the “megatons to megawatts” program, ideally by eliminating all nuclear warheads.
As long as the reactors are in geologically stable regions and made to withstand significant weather anomalies then I see no reason that nuclear power shouldn’t be used more frequently, not only in this country but worldwide as well.
Not an issue of out of sight, out of mind
As news from the nuclear crisis in Japan continues to be reported, the general consensus is that progress seems to be slow in halting the radiation pollution from the affected plants. Reports have even been made of water contaminated by traces of radioactive material beginning to appear in the United States, along coastal areas. The thousands of Japanese citizens who were evacuated from the areas are still not able to return home, and many in the international world are calling for a broader radius of evacuation in the area. Many political and news agencies worldwide have even drawn comparisons between the current Japanese crisis and the Chernobyl crisis in 1986. Although the circumstances of the events are not the same, both have brought to light the dangers of nuclear power, and in effect increased social uprising of citizens second-guessing the merits of nuclear power. With all of this in mind the question at the heart of the debate is: How safe is nuclear power?
Proponents of nuclear power argue that it is the most environmentally friendly source of energy, because it does not produce emissions that pollute the air, or contribute to smoke, fog, or large amounts of heat in the atmosphere. Also, they say that it produces more energy from smaller resources than any other energy source. They also argue that nuclear power plants add jobs to the areas where they are constructed, which in turn has a positive impact on that region’s economy.
Despite these claims, the dangers of nuclear power are evident in the Japanese crisis, and should not be ignored. You would be hard-pressed to find someone opposed to more environmentally friendly sources of energy, given that they are economically viable and readily available, but the impact of this radioactive material in the water and air after the crisis cannot be ignored either.
Granted, the frequency of this type of disaster is few and far between, but when it does occur, the results can be catastrophic. This radioactive material, which is considered pollution, has already reached the United States, and other countries, halfway around the world from Japan, and because of this, the effects of this material could potentially have a negative effect on many people in the indefinite future. With continued research into solar, wind, and water power, energy sources largely considered to be environmentally friendly with not near the amount of risk, a reliance on nuclear power as “the most environmentally source” of energy seems misguided. Although these sources may not be able to provide the volume of energy produced by nuclear power plants alone, when combined they could have the potential to produce a vast amount of energy.
Also, despite its ability to produce more energy from smaller amounts of materials, the resources used by these plants are non-renewable. However, it is not just the non-renewable status that is the issue, but rather the waste, and disposal of this waste, produced by nuclear power plants through the use of these sources.
This waste is typically classified into “low level” and “high level” waste, as determined by its radioactivity. “Low level” waste typically has a short half-life, with decay of these levels usually only lasting 10 to 50 years. But, “high level” waste is a different story. It is typically radioactive waste from the core of the nuclear reactor, including uranium, plutonium and other highly radioactive elements that might be produced. Most “high level” waste emits large amounts of radiation with very long half-lives, some longer than 100,000 years. This brings into question the storage of this material. Even if a sufficient storage plan is made for these materials, the length required for this storage makes it nearly impossible to predict the behavior of this material throughout its entire half-life. No one can be certain that, even with the most technologically advanced storage mechanism, this waste will begin to leak 100, 1,000, or even 50,000 years from now.
The economic impact cannot be ignored, but other types of sustainable, environmentally friendly energy could also have the potential to create jobs as well. Maintenance of wind, solar and water energy facilities, as well as their construction, could possibly provide many jobs. The manufacturing of the parts required for these facilities would also create jobs, many of which would be long term to produce parts necessary for maintenance.
Just because crises like the one in Japan, and the one at Chernobyl in 1986, do not occur frequently does not mean the dangers of nuclear power should be ignored. The of nuclear power plants worldwide continually increases, thus providing a higher likelihood of this type of crisis. It should not be an issue of “out of sight, out of mind.” The hazards of nuclear power should always be in our mind when considering energy sources, and hopefully these crises will serve as reminders as to what can happen if we do not take these dangers seriously.