Nuclear power plants have improved steadily over the last ten years.
Nuclear power plants are a safe, clean and reliable source of energy production. They are uniquely qualified to meet the growing demand for energy in the U.S. It is estimated that the demand for power will grow two and a half percent per year. Even if the demand for energy didnt increase in the future but stayed where it is nuclear would still be the best choice for power production. Nuclear costs less and is environmentally cleaner than coal, which currently supplies approximately fifty percent of the power in the U.S. (Loewen 53). In addition nuclear has an exemplary safety record. The group of people who oppose nuclear and promote renewable power sources, hereafter termed environmentalists, do so for very sound reasons. However, they fail to realize that renewables, wind and solar power, cannot supply the base-load electricity needed for the power grid. They also dont realize that of the five power sources that can supply base-load electricity, coal, oil, hydroelectric dams, nuclear and natural gas, nuclear outranks the others either in cost or environmental safety or both.
To understand nuclear power we need to have a general understanding of how it is generated in most nuclear plants. This is a general description only and makes no claim to encompass all the different variations possible for the design of nuclear power plants. Nuclear energy is produced from the nuclear fission reaction of a heavy nucleus such as uranium absorbing a neutron after which it splits into two fragments of nearly equal mass. This releases a substantial amount of energy and several more neutrons. The neutrons are then able to strike other heavy nuclei and cause them to fission, releasing more energy. This process occurring continuously results in a chain reaction in which many billions of nuclei may fission in a small fraction of second. In a nuclear reactor the self-sustaining series of fissions is carefully controlled. The enormous amount of energy released occurs in the form of radiation and the kinetic energy of the fission products expelled at high speeds. Most of the energy becomes thermal and is used to heat water and convert it to high-pressure steam. The steam is then used to drive a turbine and the mechanical energy of the turbine is converted to electricity by means of a generator (Britannica).
Environmentalists argue against nuclear power on the grounds of the danger of the radiation emitted by nuclear reactors and nuclear waste, the problems with the disposal of nuclear waste and, finally, that renewable energy sources can supply all the power necessary to meet any growth in demand (Lake Lovins Lovins 44). They claim w e dont need nuclear, because renewables are a better, cleaner option. These first two objections to nuclear energy are undeniable. Radiation is dangerous and there are problems with nuclear waste. The third argument against nuclear energy has merit but environmentalists dont take into account some of the realities about renewables (Loewen 52).
Renewables are better environmentally than any other power source under specific circumstances. The two most touted renewable energy sources are wind power and solar power. The specific circumstances in which they are better are when the wind is blowing and the sun is shining. Unfortunately, neither the wind nor the sun can be guaranteed to function for any specific date or time. The sun can only be guaranteed not to shine for approximately twelve hours a day and wind has no guarantees at all. Also, technology is not advanced enough to adequately harness the power provided by the sun and wind when they are available. It would take five hundred times the amount of land to build a solar plant with the same output as a nuclear plant (Oliver Hospers 24-25).
If renewables are not an option for increased power production, we will have to use one of the five base-load generators already in use: coal, oil, nuclear, natural gas and hydroelectric. A breakdown of the amount of electricity each supplies and the cost of that electricity would be helpful at this point. Coal cost 2.07 cents per kilowatt hour and produced fifty percent of the electricity in the U.S. in 1999. Natural gas cost 3.52 cents and produced 16 percent. Oil cost 3.18 cents and produced 3 percent. Nuclear cost 1.83 cents and produced twenty percent. The cost for hydroelectric, which produced 9 percent, was not available (Loewen 53).
The question now is, which of the five is most viable both economically and environmentally? Hydroelectric has no emissions or solid waste so it is good for the environment, but it is also completely location specific. There are only a certain number of places where a hydroelectric dam can be built. If those places dont coincide with where the demand for power is you cant use it. Oil has a relatively high price as well as undeniably bad emissions of carbon dioxide. There is also the problem of a finite supply that is controlled by a small number of overseas countries, OPEC, with oil. Natural gas has the exact same problems as oil, finite supply, high cost and the emission of carbon dioxide. There are more problems with coal than with any of the other four. Coal has a finite supply, one coal plant emits seven million tons of carbon dioxide, twelve thousand tons of sulfur dioxide and twenty thousand tons of nitrogen oxides annually and it produces seven hundred and fifty thousand tons of solid waste containing mercury, cadmium, lead and arsenic every year. Nuclear has no emissions of any gases and one nuclear plant produces fifty tons of solid waste per year, it has a finite supply but it is a much larger finite supply than coal, oil or natural gas (Oliver Hospers 27-28).
Environmentalists term radiation an emission and call it one more dangerous than any of the organic gases emitted from coal, oil or natural gas. Bernard Cohen explains that:
Radiation consists of several types of subatomic particles, principally those called gamma rays, neutrons, electrons and alpha particles, that shoot through space at very high speeds, something like 100,000 miles per second. They can easily penetrate deep inside the human body, damaging some of the biological cells of which the body is composed. This damage can cause a fatal cancer to develop, or if it occurs in reproductive cells, it can cause genetic defects in later generations of offspring. (49)
Explained in this way radiation sounds extremely dangerous. However, Cohen goes on to explain that every human being is struck by about fifteen thousand of these particles every second of his or her life. As far as we know every particle has the potential of causing cancer. What saves us is the probability that one actually will cause cancer. It is about one in thirty quadrillion (30,000,000,000,000,000). Every time we are struck by a particle we engage in a fatal game of chance with the odds (50). One percent of fatal human cancers are caused by radiation while the other ninety-nine percent are caused by losing in one of the other chemical, biological and physical games of chance we engage in merely by the act of living (50).
Decreasing the amount of radiation exposure will decrease the risk of cancer. To adequately explain this topic the concept of the millirem must be introduced. One millirem of exposure corresponds to being struck by approximately seven billion particles of radiation. Any dosage of below about ten thousand millirems is considered to be low level radiation. You could lower your exposure to radiation by not flying. A single cross-country airplane flight exposes you to three millirems. Another possibility is to not let yourself be X-rayed. The average X-ray gives you a dose of about twenty millirems. Never move close to a nuclear power plant, you would get one one hundredth (.01) of a millirem per year from living within fifty feet of a nuclear reactor (Norsen 43-44).
The radioactive waste produced by nuclear reactors is stored in cylinders that isolate the waste until it has the same radioactivity as the original uranium ore. Environmentalists have expressed concern about where this radioactive waste can be safely stored even in the cylinders and how to get it there without accident. The actual waste is a uranium pellet that is encased in zirconium tubes, which are then held in the thick steel and lead cylinders. The cylinders have absorbers built in so that any impacts will not violate its integrity. They have also been extensively tested under severe conditions – smashed into concrete walls at high speeds, hit by trains, placed in pools of burning oil and dropped on spikes – without being breached (Loewen 55).
The utilities operating nuclear power plants have been paying the government one tenth of a cent for every kilowatt hour produced since 1982 on condition that it begin accepting nuclear waste for disposal by 1998. It now appears that the earliest this could happen is 2010 (Wardell 41-42). The amount of nuclear waste produced by all the nuclear reactors in the U.S. for the entirety of the time that they have been operating would cover one football field to a depth of about three meters (Yelverton 658). Yet the government cant find a place to store it.
The government is considering a permanent storage place for such waste at Yucca Mountain Nevada, the site where over five hundred nuclear weapons have been detonated above and below ground. It is located about seventy miles northwest of Las Vegas. The U.S. Department of Energy has spent more than six billion to characterize and test a potential deep geological repository at Yucca Mountain. The issue is still being hotly debated but the scientific consensus developing is that it would be a suitable site as the nations repository of nuclear waste (Lake Lovins Lovins 42).
Nuclear powers safety performance has been excellent. Safety significant unusual events at nuclear power plants reported to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission have gone from an average of 2 per year in 1990 to 0.2 per year in 2000. Safety significant events are measured in terms of industrial accident rates, unplanned shutdowns and exposure of plant workers to radiation. They are not measured in numbers of fatalities. In fact, because nuclear doesnt kill or injure anyone, we have to look carefully at other indicators to see the real improvement in performance (Lake Lovins Lovins 40).
In conclusion, nuclear is a good economic, environmental and safety choice to meet the demand for more energy production in the United States. It costs less than coal, oil or natural gas. It can be produced wherever it is needed unlike solar, wind or hydroelectric. It doesnt emit carbon dioxide or any other gas. The safety levels at nuclear power plants have improved steadily over the last ten years. Nuclear waste is the biggest problem of nuclear power and it is probably the most well-managed waste in the history of the United States. This essay is not attempting to present nuclear as the perfect answer to the increased demand for power. Nuclear is not perfect, however, of the options available it comes the closest.
Cohen, Bernard L., The Nuclear Energy Option: An Alternative for the 90s. New York:
Plenum Press, 1990.
Lake, James A., Amory Lovins and Hunter Lovins. Symposium: Pros and Cons of
Nuclear Power. Insight on the News 27 August 2001: 40 45.
Loewen, Eric P. Nuclear Power Can Help Solve Energy Crisis. National Defense
August 2001: 52 55.
nuclear energy. Encyclopedia Britannica. CD-ROM. Chicago: Encyclopedia
Norsen, Travis. The Enemies of Nuclear Power. The Business Journal Milwaukee
17 August 2001: 43 – 44
Oliver, Mike and John Hospers. Alternative Fuels? American Enterprise September
2001: 20 29.
Wardell, Charles. Nuclear Energy Comes Full Circle. Popular Science August 2001:
Yelverton, Jerry. Nuclear Engineering. Vital Speeches of the Day 67 (2001) :