Forgot Password?
Home arrow GreeniacsArticles arrow Energy arrow Nuclear Power
Written by Brandon King   
Share |
Wednesday, 17 March 2010

Nuclear Power

President Barack Obama recently announced that his administration has “approved an 8.3 billion dollar loan guarantee”1 for new nuclear power plant construction. This loan will go to Southern Company, which will build two advanced reactors2 at a plant in Georgia—the first ones built in the United States since 1976. Those supporting the Obama Administration’s decision cite France—which generates 75% of its electricity from nuclear power plants3 and is the world’s largest net exporter of electricity—to support their argument that nuclear energy is economical and safe. Others have serious doubts about the radioactive waste produced by generating nuclear energy. They argue that until a long-term storage solution comes to be, nuclear energy is too big of a gamble.

Currently, the 104 commercial power plants in the U.S. generate about 20% of the nation’s energy.4 Most of the other 80% comes from fossil fuel-powered plants. Alternative energy composes “just a fraction of the domestic energy portfolio,”5 with wind at only 1% and solar at less than two-tenths of a percent (for more on wind power: By 2020, “fossil fuel based electricity is projected to account for more than 40% of global greenhouse gas emissions.”7 In terms of CO2 emissions, nuclear power plants will be guilt-free by comparison, as they do not directly produce any carbon dioxide, nor any “sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, or mercury.”8 Nuclear power plants do require tons, literally, of cement and steel—both ‘dirty’ materials that require a lot of energy to produce—to safely contain their radioactive contents, but they are carbon-free once operational.

Coal plants send fly ash into the environment surrounding the plant. This fly ash carries “100 times more radiation than a nuclear power plant producing the same amount of energy.”9 For those of you living under a silo’s shadow, don’t worry—the risk of getting struck by lighting is 3-4 times greater than any “radiation-induced effects”10 from fly ash. The point here is that the radiation received by those nearby to either coal plants or nuclear plants is an insignificant amount, and even those of us living nowhere near these still receive radiation from sources like the Earth’s crust and the cosmos. In spite of our exposure to these low levels of radiation, we have yet to turn into a nation of “spidermen” and women, and unless we start bathing in plutonium, we won’t, although popular depictions of all things nuclear might have us believe otherwise.

In 12,700 cumulative “reactor-years of commercial operation in 32 countries”11 there have been two major accidents. The first of these accidents occurred on Three Mile Island in 1979 when a U.S. reactor was severely damaged after a series of mechanical and human failures.12 While the radiation was contained and no lives were lost,13 the incident at Three Mile Island has had a huge influence on nuclear policy in the U.S., effectively turning popular opinion against nuclear power for three decades. The second event occurred in the former Soviet Bloc in what is now Chernobyl, Ukraine. A steam explosion and subsequent fire destroyed a nuclear reactor, killing 31 people (the death toll has since been increased to 56)14 and turned the city of 14,000 into a ghost town overnight.

A nuclear reaction leaves spent nuclear fuel, which is highly radioactive nuclear fuel that is no longer capable of sustaining a nuclear reaction. Also called high level radioactive waste, this is the “uranium, plutonium, and other highly reactive materials made during fission”15 that come from the nuclear reactor’s core.16 Spent nuclear fuel contains radioactive isotopes that emit large amounts of radiation; some of these isotopes have half-lives longer than 100,000 years.17 Clearly, spent nuclear fuel demands a very long-term storage solution, but the U.S. has yet to develop one.

However, the United States does have a sound short-term storage option called “dry cask storage.” This involves first immersing the “radioactive used [fuel] rods in helium or another inert gas.”18 The rods are then encased in a steel container that is further encased in a concrete cask. Currently, almost all dry casks are held under the site which produced them. With the “more than 2,000 metric tons of radioactive waste a year”19 produced in the U.S., and the “roughly 64,000 metric tons of radioactive used fuel rods” already in storage, creating a viable long-term storage space is becoming increasingly important.

A second option involves recycling (reprocessing) fuel, because “plutonium and other reusable fission products” can be separated from the waste. However, plutonium could be a target for terrorist organizations looking to create nuclear weapons. More relevant is that it is simply not an economically viable solution at this moment, nor will the "reprocessing of spent fuel… be cost-effective in the foreseeable future."20

Until this year, Nevada’s Yucca Mountain appeared to be the “country’s likely spot for holding spent nuclear fuel.”21 However, little progress was made after its 1987 designation as the federal geological repository for nuclear waste, and earlier this month the Obama administration eliminated funding for Yucca Mountain altogether in its budget proposal. For the time being, spent nuclear fuel will continue to be safely stored under the plants which produce it, but a permanent long-term solution will be needed if we are to continue operating and building nuclear power plants under the Obama Administration. This long-term solution could be in space, beneath the seabed, or beneath land,22 but for the moment it is nowhere at all.

Nuclear power will not solve America’s energy woes. Neither will solar power. Neither will wind power. The long-term solution is a change in habits. A change to local sources of food. A change to smaller, more efficient vehicles. A change to less electricity consumption. We should not seek to live wasteful lives in a more efficient manner, but to live more efficient lives in general. It doesn’t take a nuclear physicist to understand that ‘clean’ energy isn’t really clean if it powers the same old dirty habits.

Browse all Greeniacs Articles Browse all Greeniacs Guides        Browse all Greeniacs Articles

6 Id.
8 Id.
10 Id.
11 Id.
13 Id.
14 Id.
15 Id.
17 Id.
19 Id.
20 Id.

Add your comment
RSS comments

Only registered users can write comments.
Please login or register.

Click here to Register.  Click here to login.

Last Updated ( Tuesday, 09 October 2012 )


Green Facts

  • Every week about 20 species of plants and animals become extinct.

  • Bamboo absorbs 35% more carbon dioxide than equivalent stands of trees.

  • Less than 1% of electricity in the United States is generated from solar power.

  • Recycling 1 million laptop computers can save the amount of energy used by 3,657 homes in the U.S. over the course of a year.

  • Shaving 10 miles off of your weekly driving pattern can eliminate about 500 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions a year.

  • The World Health Organization estimates that 2 million people die prematurely worldwide every year due to air pollution.

  • Rainforests are being cut down at the rate of 100 acres per minute.

  • Recycling aluminum saves 95% of the energy used to make the material from scratch.

  • Plastic bags and other plastic garbage thrown into the ocean kill as many as 1,000,000 sea creatures every year.

  • Washing your clothes in cold or warm instead of hot water saves 500 pounds of carbon dioxide a year, and drying your clothes on a clothesline six months out of the year would save another 700 pounds.

  • American workers spend an average of 47 hours per year commuting through rush hour traffic. This adds up to 23 billion gallons of gas wasted in traffic each year.

  • A steel mill using recycled scrap reduces related water pollution, air pollution, and mining wastes by about 70%.

  • You’ll save two pounds of carbon for every 20 glass bottles that you recycle.

  • In the United States, automobiles produce over 20 percent of total carbon emissions. Walk or bike and you'll save one pound of carbon for every mile you travel.

  • Due to tiger poaching, habitat destruction, and other human-tiger conflicts, tigers now number around 3,200—a decrease in population by about 70% from 100 years ago.

  • One recycled aluminum can will save enough energy to run a 100-watt bulb for 20 hours, a computer for 3 hours, or a TV for 2 hours.

  • You will save 100 pounds of carbon for each incandescent bulb that you replace with a compact fluorescent bulb (CFL), over the life of the bulb.

  • 77% of people who commute to work by car drive alone.

  • Nudge your thermostat up two degrees in the summer and down two degrees in the winter to prevent 2,000 pounds of carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere.

  • Refrigerators built in 1975 used 4 times more energy than current models.

  • You will save 300 pounds of carbon dioxide for every 10,000 miles you drive if you always keep your car’s tires fully inflated.

  • States with bottle deposit laws have 35-40% less litter by volume.

  • A tree that provides a home with shade from the sun can reduce the energy required to run the air conditioner and save an additional 200 to 2,000 pounds of carbon over its lifetime.

  • If every U.S. household turned the thermostat down by 10 degrees for seven hours each night during the cold months, and seven hours each weekday, it would prevent nearly gas emissions.

  • Current sea ice levels are at least 47% lower than they were in 1979.

  • Americans throw away more than 120 million cell phones each year, which contribute 60,000 tons of waste to landfills annually.

  • Glass can be recycled over and over again without ever wearing down.

  • Recycling 100 million cell phones can save enough energy to power 18,500 homes in the U.S. for a year.

  • Americans throw away enough aluminum to rebuild our entire commercial fleet of airplanes every 3 months

  • A laptop consumes five times less electricity than a desktop computer.

  • In California homes, about 10% of energy usage is related to TVs, DVRs, cable and satellite boxes, and DVD players.

  • For every 38,000 bills consumers pay online instead of by mail, 5,058 pounds of greenhouse gases are avoided and two tons of trees are preserved.

  • Turning off the tap when brushing your teeth can save as much as 10 gallons a day per person.

  • A single quart of motor oil, if disposed of improperly, can contaminate up to 2,000,000 gallons of fresh water.

  • Americans use 100 million tin and steel cans every day.

  • Recycling for one year at Stanford University saved the equivalent of 33,913 trees and the need for 636 tons of iron ore, coal, and limestone.

  • 82 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. come from burning fossil fuels.

  • An aluminum can that is thrown away instead of recycled will still be a can 500 years from now!

  • It takes 6,000,000 trees to make 1 year's worth of tissues for the world.