Much of the world’s electrical energy, about 11 percent globally, is derived from nuclear power sources. South Korea, for example, gets 40 percent of its power from nuclear sources. Japan, currently undergoing severe nuclear catastrophes on top of natural disasters – a recorded 9.0 earthquake, and the inevitable tsunami which follows quakes, uses nuclear power for 30 percent of its electrical energy needs.
The development of nuclear energy in a power plant occurs in a controlled nuclear chain reaction that boils water, produces steam, and powers steam turbines. This method of generating electricity has both advantages and disadvantages, which are reflected in waste, cost, and the possibility of accidents, such as occurred in Three Mile Island in the US, in 1979, in Chernobyl, Russia, in 1986, and most recently in Japan.
Disposing of Nuclear Waste
Generating electricity from nuclear energy produces nuclear waste, which must be disposed of. Although the radiation output of waste is relatively small, it does release harmful radiation as it decays, and there is no method for removing the radioactivity from the waste, or to speed up the rate of decay. It must be sealed and buried in a safe location to prevent contamination of the environment.
The waste from nuclear energy is extremely dangerous and must be protected from release for several thousand years (10,000 years according to United States Environmental Protection Agency standards).
Uranium is the Fuel
One disadvantage of nuclear energy is the availability of uranium, the fuel which powers the nuclear reactor. Nuclear energy will never be able to replace other fossil fuels because there is not enough uranium to power the hundreds of nuclear plants worldwide. Estimates indicate that there are only 30 to 60 years left of the world’s uranium supply, depending on demand.
Accidental Discharge of Radioactive Material
Core meltdown in a reactor occurs when the core overheats and radiation products escape from the nuclear plant, contaminating the surrounding area with harmful radioactive material, Despite a generally high security standard, accidents do happen. The more nuclear power plants and waste storage facilities which are built, the higher the probability of a catastrophe somewhere in the world.
Cost and Time of Development
Cost is another major disadvantage of nuclear energy, which is undoubtedly the most expensive form of energy generation, from the viewpoint of development and construction costs. Building costs for a nuclear plant can range between three and five billion dollars, in addition to maintenance and operating costs which are also high, when the design and development of safety systems is taken in to accounting.
Nuclear plants take a long time to develop and build. Planning and building The time frame needed for formalities, planning and building a new nuclear power generation plant can take from 20 to 30 years in the western democracies, and probably much longer in under-developed countries.
The plutonium created in a nuclear plant by the nuclear reaction of uranium represents another disadvantage of nuclear energy, and that is the potential for a country with nuclear energy to use the plutonium to develop nuclear weapons – nuclear bombs. For example, every nuclear reactor is capable of making enough plutonium annually to build over thirty nuclear bombs, therefore, nuclear plants must be secure, to prevent this material from falling into the wrong hands.
Terrorist Attack on Nuclear Plants
No nuclear power plant in the world could withstand an attack similar to 9/11 in Yew York, and a terrorist act on a nuclear plant would have catastrophic effects for the whole world. Nuclear power plants and nuclear waste storage facilities could be preferred targets for terrorist attacks.
Advantages of Nuclear Power Generation
Nuclear power plants produce comparatively incredibly low carbon dioxide (CO2). For this reason, green house gas emissions (GHG) are negligible when it comes to being a factor that worsens climate change.
Moreover, the technology is readily available, it has been around for a number of years and there are hundreds of nuclear facilities around the world which operate safely, and contribute significantly to the energy required by the world’s population. In fact nuclear power provide the world with most of its electrical energy.
The technology enables a high amount of electrical energy to be generated in one single plant, and nuclear plants bring jobs and prosperity to a municipality where the plants are located. There are approximately 443 operating nuclear reactors in operation worldwide as of March, 2011, with another 430 planned to be built by 2030.
Despite the few serious accidents which have occurred at the nuclear sites noted above, the risk of an accident is small, based on the number of nuclear plants operating world wide. Natural disasters have caused more damage, and affected more people.
Other Aspects of Nuclear Energy
It is interesting to note when considering various forms of energy and ranking them as to whether or not they are ‘green,’ ‘sustainable,’ or ‘renewable,’ nuclear is considered to be neither green, sustainable, or renewable, quite a quandary for environmentalist who are seeking ways to minimize GHG emissions, which is one of the positive characteristics of nuclear energy. There are three key reasons for this assessment of nuclear power, which are:
• Retired nuclear plants and waste storage facilities are a life-threatening legacy for hundreds of future generations, which denies sustainability.
• Since future generations will have to deal with stored hazardous waste, this denies nuclear of any prospect of being a green form of energy.
• Uranium is available in limited quantities, as noted above, and is consumed (or converted) during the operation of the nuclear power plant, therefore, it is non-renewable.
A Major Global Energy Problem
Today, faced with Japan’s nuclear disaster, and the pros and cons of nuclear energy continually under scrutiny, it is not surprising that nations and governments of the world grapple and will continue to grapple with energy issues, as solutions are sought for the dwindling natural resources which the world has come to depend on. As for nuclear energy, despite its positive aspects, it is obvious that it cannot be a solution to any problem and may create other problems.