What are The Main Pros and Cons of Nuclear Energy?
Nuclear energy is hotly debated by environmentalists, scientists and the general public. It is a debate that needs to take place as we are rapidly running out of fossil fuels. At the same time the demands for electricity is increasing around the globe.
It is obvious that new sources of energy must be developed that will replace coal and oil in the future. Nuclear energy has been used for years but the development of nuclear power plants is often stalled or canceled due to safety or environmental concerns.
In the U.S. nuclear plants were initially licensed for 30 years but in recent years the government has extended licenses for about have the nuclear power plants to 60 years. Some of the plants have been retrofitted with newer technology for safety while others seem to be operating the same way they were 30-40 years ago.
Pros of Nuclear Energy
Today's nuclear power plants are designed with safety and back up safety systems at the forefront of the design. The nuclear material is at the center of the plant and forms the core of the reactor. Sensors through the plant record minute by minute changes in humidity and temperature and automatic systems activated in response to those readings.
The U-235 inside the core is a nine inch thick stainless steel container surrounded by a thick wall of concrete. This concrete structure is housed in a sealed steel structure which is inside a steel-reinforced concrete dome that is four feet thick.
Each protecting layer is designed to withstand forces that might cause a disruption at the core of the nuclear reactor. The outside concrete dome is designed to survive hurricanes and earthquakes or stand up to a plane crashing into it. With nuclear energy plants, safety is the highest concern and every system has at least one backup system with the goal of a fail-safe environment.
It is estimated by some experts that we will deplete the earth's supply of fossil fuels in about 50 years as demands for power continue to rise. We have enough uranium-235 to provide nuclear energy to the planet for the next 1000 years. The supply is not endless but it is substantially greater than fossil fuels.
One advantage of nuclear energy is the absence of smokestacks and noxious fumes that are commonly part of coal or oil fired plants. Obtaining fuel does not depend on social conditions or political battles between countries and a war will not disrupt the flow of U-235 to a nuclear power plant as the uranium is available from many different areas.
Environmentally, a nuclear plant produces safe electrical power without harming the earth or people and wildlife in the area. It does not spew soot into the air or produced polluted streams and waterways with waste products.
Cons of Nuclear Energy
Uranium mining requires chemical processing of the ore and a result is radon exposure. However, removing the uranium ore from the ground reduces the radon seeping from the earth in the future so that might be considered a tradeoff.
When coal is burned to create electricity, the resulting ash increases radon problems in the future and tests have shown when it comes to radon exposure nuclear energy is safer than use of coal.
In fact, studies show mining uranium for nuclear energy plants will avert hundreds of deaths from radon exposure in the future while the same one year deposit of ash from a coal-fired power plant will cause 30 deaths from radon in the future.
Radiation leaks are the greatest danger of nuclear power plants and a meltdown of the core is the ultimate disaster than can occur. This is the great fear in the minds of the public and yet that fear is based on only a few well-publicized disasters.
Chernobyl was the worst and deaths and radiation sickness were the result. So much of the Chernobyl disaster was covered up it has been difficult to get accurate figures for the number of people who were affected. It is important to note Chernobyl did not have the latest in safety features and was not a well maintained and managed nuclear facility.
At the Three Mile Island plant there was a partial meltdown of the core but the structure of the plant retained the radiation. Only a very small amount of radiation was leaked and thought the levels of cancer increased in the area for years, there were no genetic abnormalities found after the incident.
Waste disposal remains the biggest problem for nuclear energy use around the world. The focus today is on finding a way to recycle nuclear waste. The radiation from uranium is released for thousands of years.
Spent fuel rods are stored in nuclear power plants in specially designed areas where they are cooled with water constantly.
This storage takes space and must be carefully designed to avoid being damaged by natural events or terrorist attacks. The main disadvantages to increasing nuclear energy as a source of electricity lies in our inability to handle the dangerous wastes produced.