Essay: Environmental Issues and Nuclear Power

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Environmental Issues and Nuclear Power

The consensus among scientists is that there is an ongoing environmental crisis a large part of which is associated with Global Warming (Poiman & Poiman, 2007). Another very significant part of the environmental issues facing our descendants as well as many of us, particularly in the United States is the problem of dependence on fossil fuels, such as oil, other petroleum products, and coal for energy. Certainly, the continued burning of oil and coal contributes substantially to Global Warming, but its detrimental effects are much more complex then that. Ideological tension and conflict, mainly on the part of Muslim extremists in the Middle East and Africa, greatly magnify the real cost of continued Western dependence on OPEC oil (Larsen, 2007).

Alternative energy sources have been under increasing development in the U.S. recently, largely as a result of successful solar energy and wind power production programs in use in many areas of Europe (Poiman & Poiman, 2007). In considering potentially viable forms of alternative energy, one frequent suggestion is that nuclear energy should be more fully exploited for the purposes of replacing fossil fuels with sustainable energy that does not harm the environment. However, there is also significant opposition to the proposed re-opening of a nuclear power industry that was largely suspended after a critically dangerous safety issue in a U.S. civilian nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania in 1979 and one catastrophic melt down in Chernobyl, in the former Soviet Union in 1986.

Evaluating the advisability of relying on nuclear energy must take place within a wider framework of possible approaches to solving the global environmental crisis. Doing so requires considering the issue from the perspectives of economics, energy efficiency, and several specific different kinds of major safety concerns. If nuclear power is viable, it could greatly contribute to the long-term welfare of human life on earth in general, and to the solution to Western dependence on OPEC oil in particular.

Nuclear Energy in Comparison to other Sustainable Energy Sources

In principle, nuclear energy refers to the production of electric power through steam-powered hydroelectric turbines (Rennie, 2003). The turbines produce electricity exactly the same way that traditional hydroelectric power plants, such as it dammed rivers, have been generating electricity for more than a century in the U.S. The only difference between "nuclear energy" and "traditional" hydroelectric energy" sources are the means of driving the hydroelectric turbines; that is a tremendous benefit since hydroelectric dams require natural bodies of water to convert potential energy into mechanical energy in tremendous quantities (Rennie, 2003).

The other principal methods of generating significant quantities of energy without fossil fuel technology are solar energy and wind energy (Attfield, 2003; Poiman & Poiman, 2007). In principle, solar energy captures light energy in the form of photons emitted in sunlight. They operate through large arrays of solar panels that passively absorb solar radiation and convert that energy into storable forms; typically, transformers convert solar energy into electric power that is stored in batteries used to provide clean energy. The main drawback of solar energy is that it is, obviously, weather dependent and limited to daylight production. It is also relatively inefficient in relation to the availability of areas suitable for large arrays. Nevertheless, solar technology is rapidly improving and will likely contribute in a major way to the comprehensive environmental effort (Attfield, 2003; Poiman & Poiman, 2007).

Wind energy generates mechanical energy from large wind-powered fans that, in turn, power large rotating magnetos that produce electric power through the same principles as hydroelectric dams but without dependence on proximity to large dimmable bodies of water (Attfield, 2003; Poiman & Poiman, 2007). Like solar energy, wind energy is also dependent on weather and requires large arrays of generators to make an appreciable difference. Also like solar energy, wind energy has been successfully used throughout Europe. It is in less common use in the U.S. But where conditions are conducive to its success it will play a role in future U.S. clean energy production as well (Attfield, 2003; Poiman & Poiman, 2007).

Economic Issues

After almost a quarter century of relative stagnation, the American nuclear power industry would be tremendously expensive to rekindle (Poiman & Poiman, 2007). Two nuclear power reactors proposed in Florida are expected to cost as much as $6 million and $9 million respectively. According to some estimates, the projected price of nuclear energy could be as high as $6,000 for every kilowatt of production capacity. By almost all accounts, any successful transition to nuclear power would also require substantial federal subsidies as well as heavy economic disincentives to continue using fossil fuels and other heavy carbon-emitting forms of energy. This so-called "cap and trade" method of encouraging the transition away from carbon emissions may only be successful in conjunction with carbon taxes as high as $60 per ton of carbon emissions. The extent of the economic burden this would place on the national budget and on individual American consumers cannot be ignored (Poiman & Poiman, 2007).

On the other hand, it is inaccurate to compare the economic cost of nuclear energy directly against the cost of traditional forms of energy production because the more accurate and fair comparison would be the cost of nuclear power against the cumulative costs associated with fossil fuel and coal in particular (Poiman & Poiman, 2007). In that regard, the most significant cost of fossil fuels is the measurable harm done to the environment by carbon emissions and other greenhouse gasses. Second, the continued dependence of the U.S. On OPEC for energy must also be considered among the tremendous real costs attributable to fossil fuel energy. Third, the actual cost of fossil fuels themselves is steadily going up and only likely to continue rising as supplies dwindle further. Even the price of natural gas is rising rapidly. There is good reason to believe that when all the respective economic costs are fairly compared, nuclear energy is not inefficient economically, particularly since the technology will only become less expensive as the industry grows and more suppliers begin producing the necessary hardware (Poiman & Poiman, 2007).

Safety Concerns

Perhaps the most important basis for objection to nuclear power in the minds of the American public is the risk of a serious accident at a nuclear power plant. In 1979, a series of technical malfunctions and human error at the Three Mile Island nuclear reactor in Pennsylvania nearly caused a catastrophic meltdown of the nuclear core that could have released highly radioactive material into the environment (Attfield, 2003; Poiman & Poiman, 2007; Rennie, 2003). Six years later, a Russian nuclear reactor suffered an explosion and a complete rupture of the containment structure from steam pressure, releasing toxic fumes and deposits in the subsequent fires, killing hundreds immediately and thousands over the subsequent years from their exposure to radioactive fallout. An entire city, Chernobyl, was abandoned and has remained a ghost town ever since (Attfield, 2003; Poiman & Poiman, 2007; Rennie, 2003).

On the other hand, common beliefs about the risks of nuclear power plants are unrealistic to the extent they involve nuclear explosions of any kind (Attfield, 2003; Poiman & Poiman, 2007; Rennie, 2003). In fact, modern containment domes in the U.S. are much better constructed than Russian facilities and would not be susceptible to catastrophic collapse even from uncontrolled steam release. Unlike the Chernobyl reactor, U.S. nuclear reactors have extremely thick concrete structures capable of containing any radiation and preventing it from being released. American nuclear technology, professional training, and regulation is also tremendously more advanced than any 1970s or 1980s-era reactors and practically incapable of suffering the same kinds of failures as those experienced in the earliest era of nuclear power (Attfield, 2003; Rennie, 2003).

Actually, the more serious safety issue is the prospect of a core meltdown such as nearly occurred at Three Mile Island. Such an event would still not involve a nuclear explosion of any kind; nevertheless, the release of nuclear material into the ground would destroy a community-sized piece of land and render it uninhabitable for many decades or longer. But even that type of worst case scenario is not out of the scale of environmental catastrophes and loss of human life that have sometimes been associated with dams and underground coal mines.

Terrorism and Nuclear Proliferation Concerns

In the modern age of international terrorism, the prospect of nuclear power is often associated with the risk of nuclear terrorism. While nuclear power plants cannot be converted into any type of explosive weapon, they could conceivably become a source of nuclear material that could be stolen and used by terrorists in a nuclear weapon (Allison, 2004; Larsen, 2007). Moreover, modern methods of uranium enrichment in connection with nuclear power production and modern reprocessing systems and methods produce less dangerous types of plutonium that cannot be readily used in possible nuclear weapons production (Allison, 2004; Larsen, 2007).

Probably the greater relative potential risk of nuclear power is the manner in which rogue regimes could attempt to… [END OF PREVIEW]

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