Nuclear Power in the United States

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As the severity of the global warming threat attains universal recognition, the United States must look for ways to decrease its reliance on fossil fuels for electricity production. The combustion of fossil fuels such as oil and coal to generate electricity produces carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that lead to a variety of environmental problems. Nuclear power, on the other hand, is a comparatively clean source of energy. Though still widely employed, concerns over security of stored waste and a public distrust of reactor safety—fueled by the incidents at Three Mile Island in 1979 and Chernobyl in 1986, and the paranoia behind the sensational but popular film The China Syndrome—have led to calls for the decommissioning of older plants in current operation. However, it makes little sense, economically and in terms of energy capacity, to decommission plants currently in operation. Conversely, the environmental superiority of renewable sources of energy, the problem of storage of nuclear-waste, nuclear energy’s risks and dangers, and the high expense of nuclear power due to high construction costs and enormous funding for incremental research make the construction of new nuclear power plants an impractical means of decreasing the United States’ reliance on fossil fuels for electricity.

No new nuclear power plants should be built because the increasing energy demand in the United States can be met with less negative environmental impact with power generated by renewable sources such as wind, solar, and tidal power. The “zero emissions” benefit of nuclear energy is a common misconception. The actual reaction in a nuclear power plant only creates steam and radioactive waste; it does not produce greenhouse gasses or particulate matter that the combustion of fossil fuels creates. But, due to reliance on existing fossil-fuel power for plant construction, decommissioning, and fuel processing as well as the mining, enrichment, and transport of uranium, the nuclear cycle produces a significant amount of emissions (Sovacool 761). Specifically, including these factors in the carbon dioxide equivalent per kWh (gCO2e/kWh), the mean value of emissions for nuclear energy over the lifetime of a plant is 66 gCO2e/kWh. Similar “lifecycle greenhouse gas emission estimates” were projected for other various electricity generators as well. From a carbon equivalent emissions standpoint, nuclear power is much better than coal, oil, and natural gas generators, with mean emissions of 1,050 gCO2e/kWh, 778 gCO2e/kWh, and 443 gCO2e/kWh respectively. However, nuclear power is worse than electric generators such as offshore wind, hydroelectric, and photovoltaic solar, with mean emissions of 9 gCO2e/kWh, 10 gCO2e/kWh, and 32 gCO2e/kWh respectively (Sovacool 761). It is also important to remember that these sources of electricity generation are renewable (with wind, water current, and sunlight powering them) while nuclear energy requires uranium, which is a finite resource. 112,000 Clipper 2.5 megawatt wind turbines could supply all of America’s homes with electricity in a decade if the Obama administration is willing to pursue such a program (Miller, 56). Also, electricity from a nuclear plant is estimated to cost 14 cents per kilowatt hour, while wind energy is currently estimated to cost just 7 cents per kilowatt hour; half the cost (Cohen 16). A huge problem with increasing the amount of nuclear facilities is that as more nuclear power is produced, more radioactive waste is produced. As of now, there is no agreed-upon or perfect solution to the problem of nuclear waste, and constructing more sites that produce this waste would only add to the problem. Nuclear waste is highly radioactive and serious health problems such as the development of cancers accompany exposure to it. Due to the long half-life of radioactive waste, safe direct contact is only possible after 10,000 years (Taubes 173). The most heavily funded and discussed solution has...
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