Nuclear energy is a divisive issue that many people have mixed feelings about. Nuclear power has many dangerous effects to the environment and the people living near a power plant. Many countries use nuclear power as an alternate source of electrical energy from fossil fuels. Nuclear energy has to be handled with extreme care or it could lead to disastrous damages. These problems included radiation, disposing of nuclear waste, and high costs of building and maintaining power plants. But while it is extremely dangerous to use nuclear energy, it does provide an alternate source of energy that does not pollute the air. Let us look at what nuclear energy is and where it came from.
Most early atomic research was focused on developing effective weapons for use in World War II. After World War II, the government allowed nuclear energy to be developed for citizen use. We generated our first electricity from nuclear energy in 1951. According to the European Nuclear Society, as of end 2011 the total electricity production since 1951 amounts to 69,760 billion kWh and the cumulative operating experience amounted to 15,080 years by end of 2012. Because of accidents and public reluctance for them a new nuclear power plant has not been ordered in the U.S. since 1973.
So, what is nuclear energy? According to the EPA, nuclear energy originates from the splitting of uranium atoms in a process called fission. Fission releases energy that can be used to make steam, which is used in a turbine to generate electricity. Nuclear energy is generally used in a combine mixture with Uranium and Plutonium. EPA further states, in the plantââ‚¬â„¢s nuclear reactor, neutrons from uranium atoms collide with each other, releasing heat and neutrons in a chain reaction. This heat is used to generate steam, which powers a turbine to generate electricity. Unfortunately, nuclear energy also generates some nasty by-products like tritium, cesium, krypton, neptunium and iodine.
Let us talk about what is it that makes nuclear energy so bad for the environment and to people living near power plants. Let us start with the dangerous information and knowledge of this process. Knowledge of how to create power plants is shared among many nations. The problems with sharing this knowledge, is that countries will have access to the knowledge of how to make nuclear weapons, which could be bad for some nations. The International Energy Agency or IEA is responsible for energy in many countries, but some have criticizes them for not being able to keep the knowledge from hostile countries.
There have been many accidents with nuclear power plants. On April 26, 1986, a reactor at the Chernobyl power plant exploded. 30 people were killed instantly, including 28 from radiation exposure, and a further 209 on site were treated for acute radiation poisoning. The World Health Organization found that the fallout from the explosion was incredibly far-reaching. 985,000 deaths can be attributed to the Chernobyl accident between 1986 and 2004. The accident cost the former Soviet Union more than three times the economic benefits accrued from the operation of every other Soviet nuclear power plant operated between 1954 and 1990.
Another accident happened recently in Japan. On March 11, 2011, an earthquake and tsunami crippled the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station. The emerging crisis at the plant was complex, and, to make matters worse, it was exacerbated by communication gaps between the government and the nuclear industry. The plant suffered major damage from the 9.0 earthquake and subsequent tsunami that hit Japan on March 11, 2011 and, as of February 2013, is not expected to reopen. The earthquake and tsunami disabled the reactor cooling systems, leading to releases of radioactivity and triggering a 30 km evacuation zone surrounding the plant. On April 20, 2011, the Japanese authorities declared the 20 km evacuation zone a no-go area which may only be entered under government supervision. Radiation releases caused large evacuations, concern about food and water supplies, and treatment of nuclear workers. A few of the plant’s workers were severely injured or killed by the disaster conditions (drowning, falling equipment damage etc.) resulting from the earthquake. There were no immediate deaths due to direct radiation exposures, but at least six workers have exceeded lifetime legal limits for radiation and more than 300 have received significant radiation doses. Predicted future cancer deaths due to accumulated radiation exposures in the population living near Fukushima have ranged from none to 100.
There are also many environmental problems with using nuclear energy as well. All the steps in the complex process of creating nuclear energy entail environmental hazards. The mining of uranium, as well as its refining and enrichment, and the production of plutonium produce radioactive isotopes that contaminate the surrounding area, including the groundwater, air, land, plants, and equipment. As a result, humans and the entire ecosystem are adversely and profoundly affected. Some of these radioactive isotopes are extraordinarily long-lived, remaining toxic for hundreds of thousands of years. Presently, we are only beginning to observe and experience the consequences of producing nuclear energy.
Nuclear waste is produced in many different ways. There are wastes produced in the reactor core, wastes created as a result of radioactive contamination, and wastes produced as a byproduct of uranium mining, refining, and enrichment. The vast majority of radiation in nuclear waste is given off from spent fuel rods. A typical reactor will generate 20 to 30 tons of high-level nuclear waste annually. There is no known way to safely dispose of this waste, which remains dangerously radioactive until it naturally decays. The rate of decay of a radioactive isotope is called its half-life, the time in which half the initial amount of atoms present takes to decay. The half-life of Plutonium-239, one particularly lethal component of nuclear waste, is 24,000 years. The hazardous life of a radioactive element (the length of time that must elapse before the material is considered safe) is at least 10 half-lives. Therefore, Plutonium-239 will remain hazardous for at least 240,000 years.
There was a proposal to dump nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain, Nevada, a site that is considered sacred by the Western Shoshone. The plan was for Yucca Mountain to hold all of the high level nuclear waste ever produced from every nuclear power plant in the US. However, that would completely fill up the site and not account for future waste. Transporting the wastes by truck and rail would be extremely dangerous. Repository sites in Australia, Argentina, China, southern Africa, and Russia have also been considered. Though some countries reprocess nuclear waste (in essence, preparing it to send through the cycle again to create more energy), this process is banned in the U.S. due to increased proliferation risks, as the reprocessed materials can also be used for making bombs. Reprocessing is also not a solution because it just creates additional nuclear waste. There are a few different methods of waste immobilization. In the vitrification process, waste is combined with glass-forming materials and melted. Once the materials solidify, the waste is trapped inside and can’t easily be released.
There are many alternative energy sources that are sustainable and do not pose the accident risks inherent in nuclear energy production. Many of them are renewable and some have little risks to the environment. These other energy sources includes: bioenergy, geothermal, wind, solar, and tidal energy.Bioenergy comes from any fuel that is derived from biomass – recently living organisms or their metabolic byproducts. Unlike other natural resources such as petroleum, coal and nuclear fuels, bioenergy is a renewable energy source. Geothermal energy is power generated from natural steam, hot water, hot rocks, or lava in the Earth’s crust. In general, geothermal power is produced by pumping water into cracks in the Earth’s crust and then conveying the heated water or steam back to the surface so that its heat can be extracted through a heat exchanger, or its pressure can be used to drive turbines. Wind energy form of energy conversion in which turbines convert the kinetic energy of wind into mechanical or electrical energy that can be used for power. Since wind power does not require the use of fossil fuels, it is considered a renewable energy source.
Solar energy is energy derived from the Sun’s radiation. Passive solar energy can be exploited through architectural design, as by positioning windows to allow sunlight to enter and help heat a space. Active solar energy involves the conversion of sunlight to electrical energy, especially in solar cells. Hydrogen power is a term for the energy production and distribution of hydrogen as a viable fuel source to power buildings, homes and the transportation industry. Tidal energy is produced by the surge of ocean waters during the rise and fall of tides. Tidal energy is a renewable source of energy. Many more sustainable resources could be found and current resources improved if better technology were available and if the government and utilities actively promoted their development.
There are many different alternative sources that are safer for the environment and human health then nuclear energy. The nuclear energy industry has been quick to declare this technology as the solution to global warming. Many claim it has a net positive environmental gain compared to fossil fuels, though this ignores the problems and dangers associated with nuclear waste. The United States currently has no acceptable, long-term strategy for managing nuclear waste and, thus, the risks to the environment are huge. For now, because of the devastating incident of Chernobyl and many other factors, nuclear power growth has slowed, but still is a problem that needs to address and hopefully fixed.
In addition, nuclear energy always carries with it the threat of nuclear proliferation and terrorist attack on the plants. If a government is to maintain a non-proliferation policy, a non-nuclear energy policy must also be in place. Combined with the risk of a meltdown, it is clear that although nuclear energy may appear to be a solution to climate change, it only brings with it more problems. There is always the chance that there will be a meltdown at one of the United Statesââ‚¬â„¢ 103 commercial nuclear reactors or, even more likely, in a country with less stringent nuclear energy laws. Nuclear energy is not the solution – it brings with it huge risks and has the potential to wreak havoc on health and on the environment.
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