Ever since an Italian physicist, Enrico Fermi succeeded in producing the first nuclear chain reaction at the University of Chicago in December of 1942 the usefulness and the drawbacks of nuclear energy have been debated all over the world. While the opponents of nuclear energy point to its enormously destructive power unleashed in atomic bombs, and the potentially harmful effects of radiation that can be released in nuclear reactor accidents and from nuclear waste — its proponents emphasize the important benefits of the technology such as its application for producing cheap, plentiful and ‘clean’ electricity. In this paper we shall focus on the benefits of nuclear energy and discuss why we should use it? While doing so we shall also examine the concerns regarding the use of nuclear power and describe ways of overcoming them.
Types of Nuclear Reactions
There are two types of nuclear reactions through which nuclear energy can be released: by fission (splitting) of a heavy nucleus, or by fusion (combining) of two light nuclei. Both processes result in release of enormous amounts of energy since the products of the reactions have a higher binding energy than the reactants. Most present day nuclear reactors are based on the “fission” process. “Fusion” is a promising method of producing energy because fusion does not create radioactive products. However, fusion reactions are difficult to maintain as the nuclei repel each other. (“Nuclear Energy”-Encarta, 2003)
Energy Release in Nuclear Reactions
The major source of energy since the industrial revolution has been fossil fuels — coal, petroleum, and natural gas. Energy is derived from fossil fuels by burning (a chemical reaction), e.g., when coal is burned heat is released, equivalent to about 1.6 kilowatt-hours per kilogram or about 10 electron volts (eV) per atom of carbon. On the other hand, a nuclear fission reaction releases ten million times as much energy from an equivalent mass of fuel. In practical units, the fission of 1 kg (2.2 lb) of uranium-235 releases 18.7 million kilowatt-hours as heat. (Ibid.) This enormous amount of energy released in a nuclear reaction amply illustrates its destructive potential as well as its potential for producing plentiful, useful power.
Public Concerns about Nuclear Energy
As noted earlier, most nuclear power plants are based on the “fission” process. During various stages of the ‘fission’ nuclear cycle there is a high level of radioactivity present. Nuclear weapons can also be made from the nuclear fuels uranium-235 and plutonium-239. These two facts have prompted a public outcry against the use of nuclear energy, even for peaceful purposes. An accident at the Chernobyl (located in the then USSR) power plant in 1986 and a 1979 incident at Three Mile Island nuclear power plant (near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania) further reinforced these concerns. As a result, the use of nuclear energy has declined in the U.S. And most of the world during the last several years. In my opinion these concerns about the peaceful uses of nuclear energy are overblown and nuclear energy deserves a second look as a solution for the ever-increasing energy needs of the world. Safety concerns can be satisfactorily tackled given the present state of the art technology available in the nuclear industry.
Benefits of Nuclear Energy
Environment Friendly Electricity
Out of all electricity producing technologies, nuclear energy has perhaps the lowest impact on the environment in terms of the equivalent kilowatts produced.
The reasons are:
It is an emission-free energy source because it does not burn anything to produce electricity. Unlike in thermal power plants using fossil-fuels, nuclear plants produce no harmful gases such as nitrogen oxide, sulfur dioxide that threaten the ozone layer, cause smog, and acid rain. Nuclear energy also does not produce carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gases that may cause global warming. (“Environmental Preservation”-2003)
Water discharged from a nuclear power plant (the cooling water) contains no harmful pollutants since it does not come into contact with radioactive material. Strict industry standards require the water to be cooled before being discharged so that it does nor affect marine life either. (Ibid.)
Less land is required for setting up nuclear power plants than electricity plants of all other energy sources. For example, solar and wind farms of a 1,000 MW capacity would require approximately 35,000 acres, 150,000 acres of land respectively. A nuclear power plant of similar capacity requires an area of less than 500 acres. Uranium (the nuclear fuel) also requires less land intrusion for its mining as it is a low-volume, energy-concentrated fuel. (Ibid.)
Reliable Electricity a) Secure Power: Nuclear energy is not dependant on climatic conditions (like hydropower), price fluctuations or unreliable foreign supplies (imported oil). It is, therefore, an important substitute for imported oil. For example, at the time of the 1973 oil embargo, oil accounted for about 17% of U.S. electric supply while nuclear energy was about 5%. In 1990, oil represented only about 4% of U.S. electric supply, with the share of nuclear energy increasing to 21% (“Nuclear Energy: Benefits for All…”).
A b) Stable Electricity: Nuclear power plants are an important source of “base-load” generation characterized by large units that can run for extended periods.
A c) Infrequent Unplanned Shutdowns: Unplanned “trippings” in nuclear power plants have been on a constant downward trend. In 1998, 61% of all nuclear power suffered no unplanned outages at all and amounted to a total of just 0.04 per unit. (“Reliable Electricity” 2003) Average re-fuelling outage times have also declined significantly (by 59% in the period1990-99).
3) Improving Economics
Nuclear energy has become more efficient and cost-effective in recent years due to continuing plant modernization, stable nuclear fuel prices, high plant performance, renewal of plant licenses, and consolidation of plant ownership in the industry.
The improvement in economics is reflected in increasing plant capacity factors that improved from 58.5% in 1980 to 88.5% in 1999. (“Quantifying Nuclear’s Econ.Value,” 2003) The production cost (O&M and fuel cost) has accordingly declined from 3.04 Â¢ / kWh (1988) to 2.14 Â¢ / kWh (1998). (Ibid.)
Nuclear power plants, due to their continuing modernization process, are long-life power plants. This is reflected in the large number of license renewal applications put in by owners of U.S. nuclear power plants in recent years. In addition, de-regulation in the electric power industry is resulting in consolidation of nuclear generation companies leading to economies of scale. All these developments are leading to better economics for nuclear energy. (“Economical Energy Source” 2003)
4. Improved Waste Management
Following the 3-Mile Island (1979) and the Chernobyl (1985) accidents, heightened concern about nuclear safety has led to substantially improved safety practices. As a result of improved process efficiencies, the average volume of waste generated at nuclear power plants has decreased significantly in the past two decades. (“Nuclear Waste Disposal” 2003)
The usefulness of nuclear energy is inherent in the large amount of energy that is released in the fission and fusion processes (10 million times more than the energy in conventional fossil fuel). Other factors such as nuclear energy’s environmental friendliness, reliability of the electricity produced, and the improved safety and waste management practices in the nuclear industry, make nuclear energy a viable alternative to fossil fuels for electricity generation. Due to its multifarious advantages, nuclear energy is all set to make a strong comeback in the years to come after a temporary setback due to safety concerns.
Economical Energy Source.” Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) Web site. Retrieved on March 13, 2003 at http://www.nei.org/index.asp?catnum=2&catid=48
Environmental Preservation.” (2003). Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) Web site. Retrieved on March 13, 2003 at http://www.nei.org/index.asp?catnum=2&catid=38
Nuclear Energy.” (2003). Article in Encyclopedia Encarta. CD-ROM, 2003
Nuclear Energy: Benefits for All Americans.” (2001). Nuclear Energy: From Yesterday to Tomorrow. Retrieved on March 13, 2003 at http://www.posse.net/ne_benef.htm
Nuclear Waste Disposal.” High-Level “Nuclear Waste” Is Really Used Nuclear Fuel. Retrieved on March 13, 2003 at http://www.nei.org/index.asp?catnum=2&catid=62
Reliable Electricity.” (2003). Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) Web site. Retrieved on March 13, 2003 at http://www.nei.org/index.asp?catnum=2&catid=47
Quantifying Nuclear’s Economic Value.” (2003). Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) Web site. Retrieved on March 13, 2003 at http://www.nei.org/index.asp?catnum=2&catid=49
John Kemeny, chairman of the Committee appointed by President Carter to investigate the 3-Mile Island accident said in 1989: “The [industry’s] improvements over the past decade have been impressive and are very reassuring.” Quoted in “Three Mile Island and the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations” — NEI Web site.
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