“Nuclear power will help provide the electricity that our growing economy needs without increasing emissions. This is truly an environmentally responsible source of energy.”
—Rep. Michael Burgess, Texas (R)
“It’s ridiculous that time and time again we need a radioactive cloud coming out of a nuclear power-station to remind us that atomic energy is extraordinarily dangerous.”
—Pierre Schaeffer, French composer and activist in the anti-nuclear movement
I hear it again and again. “Nuclear power is something we have to use if we want to get off fossil fuels.” And just as often, I hear “Nuclear power is something we should avoid, given the threats from radiation.” I wanted to look into this issue a little more to see if I could get some proper perspective.
At present, nuclear energy is derived from splitting atoms and harnessing the released energy associated with the reaction to generate steam, rotate turbines and generate electricity. About half of the world’s nuclear energy comes from only three countries: the US, France and Japan. There are 28 other countries that use nuclear energy with a total of 436 nuclear reactors in use throughout the world. The US generates the most, but France generates the highest percentage of its electricity from nuclear power, at 80 percent.
So what are some of the positives about nuclear energy?
- It’s sustainable because the radioactivity from elements such as uranium isn’t going to stop anytime soon. Uranium-238 which can be used in nuclear reactors by bombarding it with neutrons which leads to fission reactions has a half-life of 4.5 billion years, about the age of our solar system. If you want to argue that’s not sustainable and renewable, well don’t forget our sun isn’t going to last forever either.
- It reduces greenhouse gas emissions because it lessens the need for combustion of fossil fuels and has almost no pollution associated with it.
- It can be generated right here at home, eliminating dependence on imported sources of energy such as oil.
- It can provide base-load energy requirements—unlike intermittent renewables such as solar and wind—and is already cheap and ready for prime-time without requiring years of further research and development in order to be a competitive alternative to fossil fuels.
And what about some of the negatives?
- There is risk to processing, transporting and storage of used nuclear fuel (what many refer to as nuclear waste).
- The nuclear fuel that is used can also be used by terrorists to build atomic weapons.
- Uranium mining just like other types of mining contributes toward increased health risks as well as damage to the environment.
- There is a risk of nuclear accidents, as Three Mile Island (1979), Chernobyl (1986) and Fukushima (2011) have demonstrated.
Issues like nuclear energy are complicated, and I’m not convinced the answer is completely straightforward on this one. There are groups like the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment (to which I belong) that are opposed to nuclear energy, citing that there is no such thing as a truly safe level of ionizing radiation and that any amount is harmful to human health. (Of course, that doesn’t stop us from getting X-rays and CT scans when those tests are indicated.)
And there are people like James Lovelock (creator of the Gaia hypothesis) and Patrick Moore (co-founder of Greenpeace) who point out that the risks are very much overblown and do not justify dispensing with this very important source of energy available to us right now rather than in many years after further R & D.
Here are some interesting facts about nuclear energy:
- Only about five percent of the energy is obtained from uranium. Ninety five percent is still contained within used nuclear fuel and can be recycled and used again. But recycled uranium costs more (just like recycled plastic, aluminum and paper products cost more) so most countries aren’t using much of it, even though it leads to less used fuel in the end with shorter half-lives.
- Used nuclear fuel comes in the form of pellets rather than as a liquid as many people imagine, so it isn’t corrosive and can’t leak out of containers.
- Second and third generation nuclear reactors are much more efficient and safer than the first generation reactors. Even the type of reactor involved in the Chernobyl disaster (RBMK class) was improved for safety and operations once Russia asked for assistance from the West, such that the other three Chernobyl RBMK reactors continued to operate for 13 years after the accident. Even today, eleven RBMK reactors are used in Russia.
The issue of nuclear disasters frequently comes up in conversations about nuclear energy. Are you aware of how many people died with the three nuclear disasters at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima?
- Three Mile Island: zero deaths immediately. Estimated one or two in the years following within a ten mile radius (so few making it difficult to be certain).
- Chernobyl: 31 died at the accident itself. With radiation exposure, likely a few hundred died in the following decade, although some extreme estimates place the number much higher.
- Fukushima: six died in the accident itself but they were all related to the damage from the quake and the tsunami rather than radiation. Only time will tell how many lives may be lost from the long-term consequences of radiation exposure.
Certainly any risk of loss of life is best if it can be avoided. But to put it in some perspective, it is estimated that there about 5,000 deaths due to mining accidents each year, most of those occurring in China. (China reported 6,027 deaths from coal-mining in 2004 alone.) Hazardous yet undetectable gases such as carbon dioxide and nitrogen can also suffocate miners deep in shafts, explaining why canaries were used as warning signs.
There are also chronic risks to workers in the coal-mining industry: black lung—also known as pneumoconiosis—affects about four percent of miners in the US. And the risks to the general public from radiation have to be compared with the risks that come from burning fossil fuels. These include global warming, climate change, pollution, and increased levels of tropospheric or ground-level ozone.
If you’re getting the impression that I’m a proponent of nuclear energy, then you’re right. I don’t see how we can get off fossil fuels to any appreciable amount without nuclear energy helping out in the transition phase. I can totally imagine some day in the future when renewables such as hydro, wind, solar, and geothermal provide the bulk of the world’s electricity needs. But with increased costs, intermittency, and problems with battery capacity and energy storage interfering with some of those as viable alternatives to completely replace fossil fuels in the year 2012, I don’t see much other option for now.
I’ll take nuclear energy over fossil fuels any day. And if I can’t have wind and solar completely today, then I think nuclear is a major way to help in the meantime.