Nuclear energy is defined by Webster’s Encyclopaedia as energy from the inner core or nucleus of the atom, as opposed to energy released in chemical processes, which is derived from the electrons surrounding the nucleus. Thus, since the atom was split, releasing nuclear energy for the first time, it ushered in a new era of political, economic and social debate in the history of humankind. For the first time humanity had to grapple with the intricacies that this new nuclear age brought with it. People had to struggle with the dichotomy of nuclear energy, in time recognising both the benefits and the drawbacks associated with nuclear energy. Thus, over time as people became more educated and the level of awareness about nuclear energy was raised (especially during the activist years of 1960’s and 1970’s) the question is nuclear energy good or bad was increasingly being asked.
This essay will therefore discuss the value of nuclear energy. It will focus on very pertinent issues that have long been debated in the area of nuclear energy. These issues include aspects such as nuclear waste, environmental costs, nuclear safety, nuclear sustainability and nuclear weapons.
The fuels in nuclear power reactors are a major source of the most dangerous and most radioactive waste produced. In the last 50 years, irradiated fuel has been responsible for 95% of radioactivity generated. 500 pounds of plutonium and approximately 30 tons of high-level radioactive waste are produced by a 1000-megawatt nuclear power plant on average each year.
Nuclear waste is thus a very important and real problem that society has to deal with. Governments and private nuclear plants have to adequately and effectively deal with the safe removal of nuclear waste. When not done so, nuclear waste has the potential to become a very bad negative outcome from the use of nuclear power and energy. Nuclear waste is thus an instance that shows that nuclear energy can be construed as ‘bad.’
The nuclear fuel cycle, which generates electricity from nuclear energy, releases carbon dioxide during mining, fuel enrichment and plant construction. Carbon dioxide intensivity is increased during uranium mining. As uranium mining proliferates as the demand for electrical energy and new nuclear plant construction increases, so will carbon dioxide levels in the earth’s atmosphere. In contrast to renewable energy, nuclear energy generates four to five times more CO2 per unit of energy produced, taking into account the total nuclear fuel cycle.
Another somewhat startling fact is that the United Stated government allows the release of radioactive water into the environment at “permissible” levels. One can also not obtain a true and accurate picture of the exact amounts of nuclear and radioactive wastes and emissions leaked into the air, water and soil as the figures for these are not available, according to the nuclearfiles.org website.
At these rates, the earth’s atmosphere and ecosystem will soon be unable to cope with the amounts of waste and radioactivity injected into it. For these reasons, the impact of nuclear energy and waste has high environmental costs. Many people thus see nuclear energy’s impact on the environment as a negative cost that will inevitably not be sustained over the long term. For these reasons the Kyoto Protocol has been drawn up. It is an attempt to limit the negative impact that nuclear energy has on the environment. It is also an indication of the global trend in recognising that the costs of the nuclear age is and will continue to catch up with humanity. President Bush of the United States by refusing to sign the protocol and align the United States with the principles of the Kyoto Protocol has angered many in the international community.
There have been concerns around the use of nuclear energy as well as the storage of nuclear weapons. Repetitive problems have occurred with security, safety and environmental impact in the nuclear industry. High levels of radioactivity are thus dangerous to human health and well being. Safety at nuclear plants and reactors is therefore vital. Human error plays a major part in nuclear safety as in the case of the Chernobyl disaster in the Ukraine. There a nuclear leak caused by nuclear heating in a non pressurised boiling water nuclear reactor. The fallout killed over 250 people, thousands of square miles were contaminated and clouds of radioactive isotopes were found as far away as Sweden. Anxiety over the use of nuclear energy has been heightened by the Chernobyl disaster as well as accidents at Windscale in the UK and Five Mile Island in the US. Since governments do not recognise the dangers of radiation and radiation sickness nuclear safety is still a controversial subject.
Aligned to the issue of nuclear safety is the presence of nuclear weapons and arms. Nuclear weapons including the atom bomb, the hydrogen bomb and the neutron bomb and the vast numbers of weapons the world’s superpowers have amassed, have left those holding the power with the ability to destroy the world many times over. For many years during the cold war between the democratic west and the communist east, the world lived in fear of a nuclear winter. This is obviously a negative aspect associated with the nuclear age.
While this essay thus far has discussed the negative aspects associated with nuclear energy, there are some benefits that go along with the use of nuclear energy.
The Benefits of Nuclear Energy/Nuclear Sustainability
While no source of electrical power generation is completely safe, nuclear power has a remarkable record. About 20% of electricity generated in the U.S. comes from nuclear power, and in the last forty years of this production, not one single fatality has occurred as a result of the operation of a civilian nuclear power plant in the United States, Western Europe, Japan, or South Korea. No other form of energy production can even come close.
Zero risk of large-scale oil spills
Incidentally, getting rid of our dependence on imported oil is desirable not only from an environmental standpoint, but from a political one. The largest single activity of our military today is ensuring the security of the Middle East for U.S. interests. As far as the risk of large oil spills, the Exxon Valdez spill of 1989 was one of the worst environmental disasters in history.
Nuclear power plants are one of the most economical forms of energy production. Fuel costs for an equivalent amount of power run from 1/3rd to 1/6th the cost for fossil production, and capital and non-fuel operating costs are roughly equivalent, resulting in the overall cost of nuclear generation of electricity running 50% to 80% that of other sources. This is in spite of the fact that capital costs have been hugely inflated due to lawsuits, court injunctions, and other delaying tactics used by individuals and organizations opposed to nuclear power.
Nuclear power plant capacity factors average about 75%. This is about equivalent to those of fossil fired plants, and since nuclear plants are required by the NRC to shut down for what often amounts to trivial reasons, that would indicate they are actually more reliable than fossil plants. Wind and Solar power can’t come close to the capacity factors of nuclear power, for obvious reasons.
Even if Uranium mining were stopped today, the use of breeder reactors (which create more fuel than they use) would permit us to continue generating electricity at present levels for over a thousand years into the future.
There are thus benefits as well as well as drawbacks associated with nuclear energy. The advances made for humanity through the use of nuclear power has been significant (as seen through the advantaged of nuclear energy discussed in the previous section). However, the dangers associated with nuclear energy in the shape of weapons of mass destruction and the danger and potential of nuclear leaks and reactor meltdowns has also made people more apprehensive about nuclear energy. This contradiction that the nuclear age has brought the world makes it very challenging for one to decisively say that nuclear energy has been entirely good or entirely bad. This is because the inherent dangers in the use of nuclear energy mirror the dangers that were brought with other inventions and innovations that advanced and changed the shape of society, such as automobiles and air travel. Both these modes of transport present very real risks to the person that chooses to use it. However, there are also many benefits, making it difficult for a realist to say that the automobile has been good or bad.
This form of logic and analysis can be applied to the use of nuclear energy in society. We have to recognise the benefits that we have derived from it. If society had to continue using coal and other such sources as fuel, the world, with its exponential population explosion could very well have run out of these sources by now. It is for this reason that I recognise the value that the nuclear age has brought humanity and thus would have to agree that nuclear energy can be good. This is not an endorsement of nuclear weapons in any way. I recognise the potential for harm that they bring to the world at large and their use by governments as a form of threat in lieu of diplomacy violates ethical and moral guidelines and principles, when the norm of reciprocity should ideally dictate international relations and geopolitics. My recognition that nuclear energy as a good factor in society also comes with a further limitation; that safety and security at power plants and reactors be made the most important factor so that the safety of the community in which the plant is located is ensured.
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