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Debate: Nuclear energy

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Should nuclear energy be a central part of plans to combat global climate change?

Contents

Background and Context of Debate:

Nuclear power is any nuclear technology designed to extract usable energy from atomic nuclei via controlled nuclear reactions. The most common method today is through nuclear fission, though other methods include nuclear fusion and radioactive decay. All current methods involve heating a working fluid such as water, which is then converted into mechanical work for the purpose of generating electricity or propulsion. Today, more than 15% of the world's electricity comes from nuclear power, over 150 nuclear-powered naval vessels have been built, and a few radioisotope rockets have been produced.

Some countries in the world currently use nuclear power. High construction costs have hindered the development of nuclear power in many countries. However, rising concerns regarding global warming and energy prices, however, nuclear energy has seen renewed attention as alternative form of energy.

The main question and debate is whether nuclear energy should be included as a major component of 21st century plans to combat global warming? Many questions frame this debate: Is nuclear power helpful in reducing greenhouse gas emissions? Can nuclear power scale to become a serious energy replacement to coal electric power (the main source of electricity globally)? Does the construction of nuclear plants contribute to global warming in any significant ways? What about the mining of Uranium, and what general environmental risks might this pose? What concerns surround nuclear waste? Can these concerns be addressed? How long can we expect supplies of Uranium and nuclear energy to last? Centuries? Even if it will run out in the future and is not "renewable", is it still worth pursuing now (particularly in the face of global warming)? Do nuclear plants pose a risk of "melting down", or have modern nuclear plants eliminated the risk of another Chernobyl or Three Mile Island disaster? Are there any radiation risks to local communities and to workers at nuclear plants? What about the threat of terrorist attacks on nuclear plants? What weapons proliferation risks surround nuclear energy? Should this prevent the further development of nuclear energy, particularly if it is believed that nuclear energy is part of the solution to the global warming crisis?

See Wikipedia's article on nuclear power for more background.

Global warming: Can nuclear energy help reduce emissions, fight global warming?

Yes

  • Nuclear power dramatically cuts emissions and fights global warming While it is possible to argue that there are environmental costs associated with the disposal of spent nuclear fuel rods, nuclear power certainly does not contribute to global warming, as it does not emit any greenhouse gases. This is significant from the standpoint of weighing the relative environmental costs of various power options. Given that global warming is the environmental crisis of our time, a power-source that avoids contributing to this crisis has many advantages, even if it contributes to some other, less significant, environmental problems.
  • Nuclear energy is the primary alternative to dirty coal Coal is the primary resource used around the world in the production of electricity. Nuclear energy is the next alternative. Coal is the worst air quality polluter and cause of global-warming in the world, putting millions of lives at risk. Coal resources are also running out rapidly and miners are killed by the thousands every year from mining the substance. Coal also causes lung cancer and diseases and is fairly dangerous. Nuclear is neither an air polluter nor a global warming risk, and could, therefore, act as a highly beneficial substitute for coal.
  • Nuclear fuel cycle does not inherently require fossil fuels. Fossil fuels are not inherently required in mining Uranium and building nuclear plants. It just so happens that all modern machinery and vehicles involved in this process are powered by fossil fuels. Yet, these fossil-fuel-based machinery can be replaced by electric vehicles and machinery, possibly supplied by nuclear power plants themselves. In sum, nuclear energy is inherently clean. It is only the processes surrounding it that are dirty. This can and will change.


No

  • Entire nuclear cycle emits substantial greenhouse gases One cannot look at only the nuclear power plant, but have to consider the whole process of producing electricity. The other processes such as mining, milling, refining, enriching, transportation, disposal all heavily depend on hydrocarbons and fluorocarbons. The construction and decommissioning are also both hydrocarbon intensive processes. All of these contribute to global warming.
  • "Clean coal" makes nuclear energy an unnecessary "replacement". Many say that coal can be made clean.k Pollution controls to eliminate fly ash and other pollutants exist today. We need to require scrubbers on all coal plants. Germany has constructed a coal-fired plant that even captures CO2 emissions.
  • Nuclear plants only produce electricity and can't replace oil and gas Electricity typically makes up around 1/3 of the energy needs of the economies it supplies. It does not affect the heating of buildings with gas or, generally, driving vehicles, both of which are main causes of pollution and global warming. Therefore, nuclear energy will not replace the main causes of global warming, and therefore should not be seen as a primary global warming solution.


Environment: What are the other environmental pros and cons?

Yes

  • Nuclear energy is highly efficient The efficient use of natural resources is a major criteria in determining the environmental friendliness of a source of energy. Nuclear energy extracts by far more energy from the natural resource Uranium than does the exploitation of oil or any other natural resource. It is the most efficient use of the Earth's resources. In fact a gram of uranium can generate as much electricity as four tonnes of coal.
  • Uranium is so abundant that nuclear energy is nearly "renewable". Uranium supplies are abundant around the world. And, equally importantly, the amount of uranium required to produce a massive amount of energy is very small, which means that the it will take centuries to deplete uranium supplies. This means that, particularly in the context of the immediate threat posed by global warming, that nuclear energy is effectively a "renewable" resource.


No

  • Nuclear power is efficient only once the uranium is in pellet form. Uranium mines don't contain fuel pellets. For uranium bearing rocks to even be called ore, they need to have at least 750 parts per million of uranium. It takes a lot of processing to make a fuel pellet. A large amount of uranium ore needs to be mined, milled, refined and enriched in order to produce that little tiny pellet that has the energy of many coal hopper cars. Although it takes about 20 times more mining for coal as it does for the same amount of uranium, one still has to consider the environmental damage from the radon gases being released into the atmosphere, the groundwater contamination and the radioactive dust in the air.
  • Nuclear plants require lots of water. Nuclear power plants are only 35% thermally efficient. This means for every kilowatt of electricity produced, almost twice as much waste heat is generated. Nuclear plants require water to remove the waste heat - usually into the environment.


Waste: Can nuclear waste be dealt with adequately?

Yes

  • Nuclear energy "waste" can be recycled After the first cycle of nuclear energy use, spent fuel still has 95% of its potential energy. Spent fuel can be recycled many times before it is no longer a viable energy source and can be retired as "waste".
  • Nuclear waste can be safely managed and stored. Nuclear waste can be properly managed and stored with virtually no risks to society. There are very clear ways to effectively manage and store nuclear waste. All concerns related to this process relate to human error. If properly managed, all of these concerns can be addressed and all significant risks eliminated.


No

  • Reprocessing nuclear waste is not a viable environmental solution. Nuclear waste is not being reprocessed except in a very few countries. There is no closed cycle for it to be framed as "Recycling". It is cheaper to mine new Uranium than reprocess spent Uranium. Second, spent Uranium has to be disposed of and dealt with at one point even if it is reprocessed and the radioactivity of it remains.
  • High Level Waste *is* dangerous and will remain radioactive for a long time. High-level waste (HLW) consists mostly of spent nuclear reactor fuel from both commerical power plants and military facilities, as well as reprocessed materials which can emit large amounts of radiation for hundreds of thousands of years. Commercial nuclear power plants in the U.S. alone produce 3,000 tons of high-level waste each year. HLW must be handled by remote-control from behind protective shielding to protect workers.
  • Transporting nuclear waste is a public safety concern - Since the storage of nuclear waste often takes place in designated areas within a large territory, it becomes necessary to transport nuclear waste long distances to these locations. This presents risks to the populations that exist on the route to these waste areas.


Economics: Is nuclear energy relatively inexpensive?

Yes

  • Nuclear power is relatively inexpensive Long-term costs of nuclear power are comparable with that of hydro-electric or coal. It is also presumable that advances in nuclear technologies and in nuclear plant construction methods will reduce costs over time.
  • Nuclear energy costs are unfairly increased by regulations and politics The regulatory, legal, and political environment surrounding nuclear energy is a major cost for the industry. Many contracts have been canceled half-way through due to these issues, elevating the risk for investors, and subsequently elevating interests rates offered to those planning to invest in nuclear projects.
  • Nuclear power will help lower oil dependencies. Nuclear energy is one of the most viable alternatives to oil, particularly because it is capable of supplying such massive amounts of energy.
  • Nuclear energy can help supply the poor world with needed electricity The massive increase in demand for electricity expected in the 21st century can only be met by an energy resource capable of supply a massive amount of electricity. Coal is an option, but it is highly destructive to air quality and the global environment. Nuclear energy is really the only other massively abundant, massively productive source of electricity capable of meeting these rising demands.

No

  • Uranium prices will go up substantially. Uranium has gone up ten fold already. The US imports 84% of its uranium. Many countries have run out already. There is a gap growing between the uranium used and the uranium mined. The gap is being made up by downblending nuclear weapons. The nuclear weapons material will run out in 2012.
  • Nuclear waste disposal is costly Digging massive holes in mountains, transporting nuclear waste to these designated waste areas, and monitoring the waste area for radiation leakages are all costly.
  • Nuclear energy is not globally applicable. Nuclear energy can only be adopted where there is uranium, where the technology and capital exists to create the plants, and where there are sufficient international security and safety regulations in place. There are many barriers to adoption, whereas other energy alternatives have fewer such barriers, and can be more universally adopted.
  • This distance between nuclear plants and end-use causes electricity losses. Whenever electricity is transferred across wires, some of its electrical current is lost. The longer the distance, the more electricity loss occurs. Because there are few nuclear power plants, the average distance that the produced electricity has to travel is quite long. The result is an inefficient loss of electrical energy.


Safety concerns: Are nuclear power plants safe?

Yes

  • A 1986 Chernobyl accident would not occur today: The Chernobyl nuclear reactor was an early model of Soviet reactor. It had no containment vessel, lacked many modern safety features, and was caused largely by human error that no longer has the potential to cause disasters in modern nuclear reactors.
  • Three Mile Island was actually a nuclear safety success Despite the fears generated by the Three Mile Island incident, the safety mechanism there actually acted to effectively prevent a nuclear catastrophe. It should be seen as a demonstration of effective safety measures, not as an example of the safety risks of nuclear energy.
  • Nuclear energy catastrophes have caused far fewer deaths than coal-mines While it is important to consider the risks presented by possible scenarios of nuclear meltdowns and disasters, it is important to note the fact that there have been many more coal-mine deaths in history than nuclear energy related deaths. This would seem to indicate that the fear of nuclear energy disasters is something of a social phobia rather than a sober fear based on relative risks.
  • Fears over nuclear energy are irrational Nuclear energy is completely safe. There is no need for irrational fears and we should not let them jeopardize the future prosperity of our planet. The only thing stopping global use of nuclear power is public concern but this is really not necessary.

No

  • Three Mile Island leaked radioactivity into the environment. By no means did the containment work, nor was it a success. Between 25 to 106 million "curies" of radioactive noble gas (Xenon and Krypton) leaked from the TMI plant. It set off radiation detectors in Albany, NY. TMI dumped 265,450 gallons of contaminated water into the Susquehanna River. Three Mile Island rates a 5 on the International Nuclear Event Scale. To rate a 5, obviously there was a breach into the environment.
  • Accidents happen in many parts of the fuel cycle. Mining: Navajos, Milling: Church Rock, In reprocessing: Mayak and Tokaimura.
  • Nuclear energy disasters are a major risk "Pros and cons of nuclear power". Time for Change.org. Retrieved 1.23.08 - "High risks: Despite a generally high security standard, accidents can still happen. It is technically impossible to build a plant with 100% security. A small probability of failure will always last. The consequences of an accident would be absolutely devastating both for human being as for the nature (see here , here or here ). The more nuclear power plants (and nuclear waste storage shelters) are built, the higher is the probability of a disastrous failure somewhere in the world."
  • The cost of nuclear power causes cuts in safety measures Whenever it costs a substantial amount of money to build a facility, it is common that some safety features are sacrificed to cut costs. This has commonly been the case with nuclear facilities, which has lead to facility closures mid-stream due to the realization of dangers to workers and surrounding communities.
  • Nuclear power plants are and have been shut down. Some argue that nuclear energy is fine, or else nuclear plants would be shut down. But, they are being shut down. The following nuclear power plants have been shut down due to being unsafe or past their operating life in the US: Big Rock Point, Bonus, Dresdent-1, Elk Rivers, Enrico Fermi-1, Frt St. Vrain, GE Vallecitos, Haddam Neck, Hallam, Humboldt Bay, Indian Point-1, Lacrosse, Maine Yankee, Millstone-1, Pathfinder, Peach Bottom-1, Piqua, and many others. Some reactors were shut down much sooner than their design lifetime.


Terrorist threat: Is the terrorist threat to nuclear facilities non-existent/manageable?

Yes

  • Nuclear facilities are designed to withstand terrorists attacks Containment vessels for nuclear reactors are protected by six feet of re-enforced concrete, capable of protecting against an airplane collision. But, even if such a collision were to occur, it's important to recognize that a nuclear explosion would not occur.
  • Nuclear facilities are less vulnerable to terrorists than other targets There are many vulnerabilities to terrorist targets. Chemical plants, water supplies, natural gas supertankers are all highly vulnerable terrorist targets. It is not appropriate to assign an arbitrarily high importance to the vulnerabilities of nuclear reactors, when other vulnerabilities exist to the extent that they do.


No

  • A terrorist strike on a nuclear facility could be devastating The 9/11 Commission said in June 2004 that al Qaeda’s original plan for September 11 was to hijack 10 airplanes and crash two of them into nuclear power plants. They said that a successful attack would release "large quantities of radioactive materials to the environment."[1]

Proliferation: Are weapons proliferation risks non-existent/manageable?

Yes

No

Lights on: Is nuclear energy necessary to "keep the lights on"?

Yes

  • Nuclear energy is necessary to "keeping the lights on" in the 21st century. Electricity demand is growing rapidly around the world as massive populations enter modernity, and begin to seek electricity, as they should. The only way to meet this spiking demand for electricity is with nuclear power. It is the only way to "keep the lights on".
  • Any electricity source will keep the lights on, but nuclear power will be a better solution for the future. Any energy resource will keep the lights on and keep running much-needed electricity. But as resources start to run low get more expensive, nuclear power is the better choice for the future. Uranium resources will last longer and are better for the environment. And once the plants are built and running, nuclear power would also be more cost efficient in the future.

No

  • Nuclear reactors won't keep the lights on; they take too long to build The only way that global demand for electricity could be met by nuclear power is if new plants could be built in-step with the increase in demand. But, it takes decades to plan and build nuclear plants; 20 to 30 years by some estimates. Because the demand for electricity around the globe is rapidly accelerating now, nuclear energy is out of step with these increases in demand, and will not be able to "keep the lights on".


Public opinion: Where does public opinion stand on this issue?

Yes


No

  • Ill-informed public opinion the main obstacle for nuclear energy. The majority of the public consider nulcear power plants to be unsafe. They really are very safe, but the public opinion in countries currently not using nuclear power is predominantly against nuclear energy. The public opinion really is the only factor stopping nuclear energy coming into place globally.


Pro/con sources

Yes


No


See also

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