The earthquake and nuclear disaster in Japan has forced us to think again about the viability of nuclear power. ‘Is it time we rejected or recommitted to the energy source?’ asks 18-year-old student Amanda McClintock, a journalism student from Queensland, Australia.
Electricity is a vital part of our society and our way of life. However, fossil fuels cannot last forever and the CO2 emissions from the use of these fuels can be very damaging for our environment.
The option of nuclear power gives us an alternative – it is a significantly cleaner way of producing electricity. But do the positives of it really outweigh the negatives?
As we are seeing the possibility of a nuclear meltdown in Fukushima in Japan after the earthquake and Tsunami, we can expect the nuclear power debate to once again be very prominent.
Nuclear power is created through a mineral called uranium. Uranium has been a common element on Earth since it was created. One of the varieties, Uranium-235, is the most vital type needed for the manufacture of nuclear power, and nuclear bombs. Nuclear power plants depend on the energy that is created during nuclear fission.
Nuclear fission is the process of one atom splitting into two atoms, producing energy. Uranium persistently undergoes natural fission at a very slow rate. In order to turn this energy into electrical energy, nuclear power plant operators have to control the energy that is given off by the enhanced uranium and they have to allow it to alter water into steam. This steam then drives turbines, which, in turn, drives the generators, producing electrical power.
The coolant is also an essential part of the nuclear process. There is an immense amount of heat in the reactors as a result of the nuclear fission and although this heat is necessary, too much heat can be disastrous for the elements that make up the reactors. As a result, a coolant is required so that everything runs at a safe temperature. The most commonly used coolant is water, however there are also other types. This is the basic process of how nuclear power is created.
There are many positive sides to using nuclear power. Nuclear power means that we do not have to be totally reliant on fossil fuels and it isn’t affected by fluctuating gas or oil prices. As a result it is a very reliable energy source. Another positive, which many people use as the biggest argument for nuclear power is the very low level of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions.
The power produced would normally produce 2 billion metric tonnes of CO2 every year. However, nuclear power produces significantly less than this. It is important, however, to consider the CO2 that is emitted by building these power plants and all the other aspects of nuclear power.
Another positive element to the use of nuclear power is that nuclear fission produces roughly one million times more energy per unit of weight than fossil fuel alternatives. As well as this, it produces very little waste.
On the other hand there are a number of negatives to using nuclear power. One of these is that, despite the clean manufacture of nuclear power, mining and purifying uranium has not been very clean through history and vital changes would need to be made to make this process cleaner.
As well as this, nuclear power has the possibility to be very dangerous. Transporting nuclear power to and from plants poses a great contamination risk. Although it is reliable, a lot of money has to be put in to make it a safe practice. Any accidents or natural disasters may have catastrophic repercussions.
In addition, nuclear waste is very hard to dispose. It must be buried for thousands of years for the radioactivity to become safe for humans. These levels of radiation can be hazardous to human health. Although the level of nuclear waste may not be very high, nuclear power generation produces a high amount of low-level radioactive waste.
This also has the possibility to become dangerous and needs close monitoring. The monitoring of this waste costs money and so does the building of plants. These factors may make the process of creating nuclear power cost more than we realise.
In any case, researchers have found that the amount of uranium left in the world will only last another 50 to 70 years – less if more plants are built, making nuclear power an unsustainable resource. Moreover, nuclear power cannot be recycled.
When we look at these pros and cons it begs the question, are the risks to human health really worth fewer carbon emissions or should we be focussing on other options for cleaner, greener energy?
It seems that while no option is perfect, nuclear power has too many associated risks to make it a viable option for our society. At the end of the day, it isn’t up to me, but from all the evidence I have found, it seems that nuclear power is more of a risk than it is an asset to our society.
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