Pros and Cons of Nuclear Power
What's nuclear power's biggest advantage? It doesn't depend on fossil fuels and isn't affected by fluctuating oil and gas prices. Coal and natural gas power plants emit carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, which contributes to climate change. With nuclear power plants, CO2 emissions are minimal. According to the Nuclear Energy Institute, the power produced by the world's nuclear plants would normally produce 2 billion metric tons of CO2 per year if they depended on fossil fuels. In fact, a properly functioning nuclear power plant actually releases less radioactivity into the atmosphere than a coal-fired power plant [source: Hvistendahl]. Plus, all this comes with a far lighter fuel requirement. Nuclear fission produces roughly a million times more energy per unit weight than fossil fuel alternatives [source: Helman]. And then there are the negatives. Historically, mining and purifying uranium hasn't been a very clean process. Even transporting nuclear fuel to and from plants poses a contamination risk. And once the fuel is spent, you can't just throw it in the city dump. It's still radioactive and potentially deadly. On average, a nuclear power plant annually generates 20 metric tons of used nuclear fuel, classified as high-level radioactive waste. When you take into account every nuclear plant on Earth, the combined total climbs to roughly 2,000 metric tons a year [source: NEI]. All of this waste emits radiation and heat, meaning that it will eventually corrode any container that holds it. It can also prove lethal to nearby life forms. As if this weren't bad enough, nuclear power plants produce a great deal of low-level radioactive waste in the form of radiated parts and equipment. Over time, spent nuclear fuel decays to safe radioactive levels, but this process takes tens of thousands of years. Even low-level radioactive waste requires centuries to reach acceptable levels. Currently, the nuclear industry lets waste cool for years before mixing it with glass and storing it in massive cooled, concrete structures. This waste has to be maintained, monitored and guarded to prevent the materials from falling into the wrong hands. All of these services and added materials cost money -- on top of the high costs required to build a plant.
The ongoing turmoil at the Fukushima nuclear power plant following the devastating earthquake and tsunami in Japan has catalyzed a new debate about the future of nuclear power in the U.S. and around the world. While environmentalists have long argued against the use of nuclear power, citing the longterm hazards from radioactive waste among the chief concerns, even some prominent environmental advocates have thrown support behind the continued or expanded use of nuclear power now that the threat of global warming seems to dwarf many other concerns. So what are the pros and cons of nuclear power? If you're new to the debate, this feature will help you come up to speed. Pro: Carbon-Free Electricity
The big selling point to environmentalists about nuclear power plants is that they are said to emit almost no carbon dioxide. Some prominent environmentalists have embraced nuclear power because they see the imminent threat of global warming outweighing the potential threat of localized nuclear meltdowns. But how true is the claim? When all is said and done—between mining the uranium, refining and enriching fuel, and building and operating the plant—a big 1,250 250-megawatt nuclear facility produces an estimated 250,000 tons of carbon dioxide during its lifetime, according to one analysis. If that's true, the entire U.S. nuclear industry has produced something around 26 million tons of carbon dioxide. Sounds like a lot, right? In contrast, coal-fired plants produce close to 2 billion tons of carbon dioxide every year in the U.S. alone while also emitting lots of other pollution: soot that causes lung diseases; sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides that cause smog and...
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