There Are Advantages Of Nuclear Energy As There Are Challenges
Are advantages of nuclear energy
such that it could be part of the solution to global warming? Or is nuclear radiation an even greater problem?
The debate about whether to build nuclear energy reactors is again in full swing.
It is necessary, as we become more aware about the magnitude of the climate change through the global warming phenomenon.
So identifying significant advantages of nuclear energy would be important.
Most scientists agree that we are seeing the effects of global warming already and that the imminent future looks dire. We must reduce the emissions that cause global warming. Therefore alternative energy must be employed.
Some think this means a wholesale adoption of nuclear energy, some see no advantages of nuclear energy, some believe in a mix of nuclear energy with renewable energy.
Now even garden-shed size "neighborhood nuclear power plants" are a reality
"Is nuclear energy not renewable then?", you ask.
Well, thanks for the question, which goes right to the heart of advantages of nuclear energy and disadvantages. "Yes, No, Maybe", depending on what kind of reactor you use. More about that later.
Nuclear energy provides between 11% and 18% of world electricity needs.
But the USA has not built any nuclear reactors since 1978 because of public opinion which does not identify many advantages to nuclear energy.
Eight of its reactors have been decommissioned since then, leaving it with some 130 reactors. Of course the USA is also the greatest contributor to greenhouse gases through burning of fossil fuel.
Currently there are some 442 nuclear reactors in the world with at least another 12 under construction in Asian countries, Brazil and Finland.
Australia with its abundant uranium ore supplies has recently entered into uranium contracts with economically fast growing giants India and China, also two major contributors to greenhouse gases.
These countries are also among those that have decided on the advantages of nuclear energy and are building nuclear reactors.
Energy demands are growing fast everywhere and we cannot afford to continue to meet them with finite and polluting fossil fuels.
During the last decade in the previous century world energy use grew by 20% and has been at around 3% per year and growing.
James Lovelock, of Gaia fame, is supporting nuclear energy as the only way to minimise serious harm from global warming. Something he says is now inevitable as he forecasts a debilitated physical and social world.
We can now only minimise the impacts.
So… the stakes are high whichever way you look at it.
If there are advantages to nuclear energy it makes sense to hear them despite nuclear radiation risks from accidents, weapons proliferation and so on.
So what are advantages of nuclear energy?
Fissile atoms contain vast amounts of energy
Nuclear fission, the splitting of a heavy atom’s nucleus, releases great amounts of energy. For example the energy it releases is 10 million times greater than is released by the burning of an atom of fossil fuel. Besides it would take many hectares of land covered with solar collectors, wind farms or hydro-electric dams to equal this power.
No greenhouse gases are released by nuclear power plants.
According to some, even when accounting for the fossil fuel used in mining uranium, processing it, building and decommissioning of the nuclear plant, the picture remains good from this perspective.
Less than one-hundredth of carbon dioxide gas
is produced by nuclear power plants compared to coal or gas-fired energy plants. This means nuclear energy also emits less greenhouse gas than renewable energy sources such as hydro, wind, solar and biomass. Ofcourse,
others have contrary views to these claims about the advantages of nuclear energy.
The major costings in building nuclear power plants are usually those of construction and operating the nuclear plant as well as that of waste disposal and cost of decommissioning the plant. The end product, useable energy has been estimated to be around 3 - 5 cents (US) per KiloWatt-Hour. However there are many variables, including type of reactor, cost-over runs in construction and decommissioning, and loan interest rates.
In the American nuclear power industry the cost of producing electricity has fallen from 3.63 cents per KW-hr in 1978 to 1.68 cents per KW-hr in 2004.
there are opposing views
as to the cost and other aspects of advantages of nuclear energy.
Availability of uranium
Uranium is obtained from open-cut mines and is not expensive to mine. World reserves are estimated to last anywhere between 6 to 150 years, to even hundreds of centuries, depending on who is the commentator, and depending on the type of reactor they have in mind.
Present reactors only use some 1% of the energy available in uranium but in future fast breeder reactors could recycle spent fuel rods at a 99% efficiency rate. The potency and quantity of radio active waste material from such reactors is much less than that of current thermal reactors.
In the US alone, with just under a third of nuclear reactors worldwide there are 43,000 metric tons of accumulated nuclear waste stored at reactor sites. This is useable fuel for fast breeders but their construction however is at least 15 years off.
These are some of the advantages of nuclear energy, but of course, apart from the first advantage, they are contested.
Other advantages include,
- Nuclear fuel is inexpensive
- Waste is highly compact, unlike carbon dioxide
- The compact fuel is easy to transport
Major challenges of nuclear energy include,
Nuclear radiation accidents
Although only ever one serious nuclear accident has occurred, in Chernobyl in 1986, such an accident affects many thousands of people, livestock and agricultural production over a large geographical area. In the case of Chernobyl in the Ukraine, nuclear fall-out reached as far as areas of the UK.
Supposedly poor reactor design at Chernobyl allowed the emission of radioactivity and this has not been repeated elsewhere. However one accident is too many.
Nuclear weapons proliferation
It is not easy to handle the highly toxic plutonium that is needed to produce a nuclear bomb. So, for terrorists this is nigh impossible. Constructing a ‘dirty’ nuclear bomb for instance is much easier.
However some governments of nuclear states may now or in the future be regarded as terrorist in their willingness to use nuclear weapons or sell uranium to states that have not signed the international nuclear proliferation treaty.
Other disadvantages include,
Nuclear power requires a large capital cost, involving emergency, containment, radioactive waste and storage systems
Long-term storage of nuclear waste is difficult.
And not only from a geological standpoint. Where to store it is difficult in a world where political stability cannot be guaranteed for 50 years, let alone for 10,000. No-one can predict who will access this waste in future generations and for which purposes. Ground water contamination would be a deadly nuclear legacy.
Take Germany, where its previous Social-Democrat/Greens government resolved to phase out nuclear energy and its present Conservative government has put it back on the agenda. But nuclear waste is now a big headache.
126,000 rusting containers of atomic waste are buried 750 metres down in a disused salt mine in Asse, Lower Saxony. They contain low-grade radioactive waste from nuclear reactors, buried between 1967 and 1978. The waste comprises some 100 tonnes of uranium, 87 tonnes of thorium and 25kg of plutonium. Water is leaking into the mine at a rate of 12,000 litres a day and geologists have warned that the mine could collapse. It now needs to be brought back to the surface to try and stop ground water contamination.
Further advantages of nuclear energy?
Among the further advantages of nuclear energy against the backdrop of climate change, is that we are forced to look at ourselves.
What have we done to get us here? Any promise of unlimited energy, nuclear or otherwise, is deceptive in a world that exists because of tensions, limitations, dependency and vulnerability.
We may have to adjust to that reality and use less energy than we actually think we need. You and I will need to review our priorities. Inevitably we will need to use more of the energies of relationship and genuine care for each other and our environments to be a success at that.
Still have more questions?
Besides considering advantages of nuclear energy you need more information. Consider also "what is nuclear energy", how does it work and compare notes with renewable energy options.
Want to talk about it? Go here.
Want to know more to inform you in the nuclear energy debate? Like what is nuclear energy?
Nuclear Radiation. A Serious Issue
How Does Nuclear Energy Work Exactly?
What's The Advantage Of Renewable Energy?