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Nuclear Energy

By netty1172 Jun 23, 2013 3024 Words
Can Nuclear Energy Be the Answer?
It is only possible to mitigate global warming if the world-wide consumption of fossil fuels can be drastically reduced in the next 10 to 15 years. There is simply no room for a scenario as it is depicted by Lester R. Brown in the book Plan B 4.0 Mobilizing to Save Civilization. The scenario plays out like a horror movie, poverty, depleted water supply, food shortages, terrorism, over population, disastrous floods, erratic changes in ocean currents and global warming. What is causing global warming? Carbon dioxide and other air pollution that is collecting in the atmosphere like a thickening blanket, trapping the sun's heat and causing the planet to warm up. Coal-burning power plants are the largest United States source of carbon dioxide pollution -- they produce 2.5 billion tons every year. Automobiles, the second largest source, create nearly 1.5 billion tons of CO2 annually. (Valentinas Mickūnaitis)

The good news is there are many technologies that exist today to allow cars to operate more efficiently and use less gas. In order to reduce the amount of toxins in the atmosphere, older power plants need to be modernized and we need to reduce our electricity by putting into practice energy efficiency, these are just some suggestions to lowering the levels of CO2, we have to make sure they are implemented. Politicians are especially attracted to the restoration of nuclear power as a possible solution to averting global warming. When the subject of global warming is discussed and the methods to reduce it, it is out of the ordinary that the focus is put on the pros of nuclear power generation, and its disadvantages are rarely mentioned. As the discussion of renewing nuclear power is examined, the subject over the pros and cons top the list of dispute. Regardless of the apprehensions and concerns over nuclear energy, there are many advantages in regards to the environment, the economy and our future generations. The use of nuclear energy is becoming more prevalent.

Nuclear energy is one of the most efficient sources of energy available. It produces more energy than any other fuel of the same mass or volume. (Hibbs) One of the many benefits of nuclear energy is that it emits very little pollutants that are harmful to the air. Nuclear energy could be the answer our planet is looking for to deter a potential disaster: cataclysmic climate change. With our need to satisfy the growing demand for power, it would seem that nuclear energy is the only comprehensive, economical source of energy to produce power which can also diminish carbon dioxide emissions

Nuclear energy is an idea that came from the Soviet Union in 1954 when the first nuclear power plant became operational. (Long) As of March 30, 2012 in 31 countries, 436 nuclear power plants were in the world. One hundred-four of those resided in the United States. Fifteen countries in the world receive at least 30% of their energy from nuclear power. France is the leader, receiving over 77% of their energy from nuclear power plants. Japan follows France with a 33% dependence on nuclear energy, 26% in the United Kingdom, and 20% in the United States. (Nuclear Power Plants, World-Wide) The nuclear industry reports construction costs in the range of $2,500 - $6000 per installed kilowatt (kW); the growing costs are being attributed to the corresponding rise in costs of steel, concrete and uranium. (David Haarmeyer) There are currently 30 new nuclear units planned to be constructed in the United States.

The estimates of construction cost for new nuclear power plants are unclear and have risen considerably in the past 10 to 15 years. Currently, total cost approximations of new nuclear units, including appreciation and financing costs, will be in the range of $5,500/kW to $8,100/kW or between $6 billion and $9 billion for each 1,100 MW plant. The Chinese Nuclear Power Industry has won contracts to build new plants of their own design at capital costs reported to be $1500 per KW and $1300 per KW at sites in South-East and North-East China. If completed on budget these facilities will be formidable competitors to the Western Nuclear Power Industry. (

The end costs are likely to be considerably higher, quite possibly twice as much once you consider the many elements in owners’ costs such as land, cooling towers, the interest charged by financial institutions throughout construction and cost intensification due to price increases and cost overruns. (David Haarmeyer) The United States Congress has recently approved an energy bill that grants production credits of 1.8 cents per KW-Hr during the first three years of operation of a new plant. This is the type of support the nuclear industry needs in order to promote new reactor construction in the United States. Westinghouse’s AP1000 is currently estimating the cost of constructing a new reactor at $1000 per KW and 3 year construction time. If Westinghouse can achieve this goal, they will be able to supply electricity at a much lower cost than any other fossil fuel based generating facility. (

There were massive cost overruns for plants built in the USA in the 1970's and 1980's. There were several reasons for these. * Design Flaws. There were significant design flaws which led to the reactor leak and operator confusion that caused the Three Mile Island accident. After these were exposed, the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) undertook an extensive review of Nuclear Plant designs and in many cases ordered changes. These changes were both expensive and time consuming to fix. They led to extensive construction delays at a time of very high interest rates and so significantly increased the cost of the Capital required to build the plant.

* Two hurdle licensing. Up until the mid-1990's developers of nuclear power plants had to obtain both a license to build a Nuclear Power then a subsequent license to operate the plant. This also delayed the start of plant operation which significantly increased the cost of the plant. The worst situation was that of the Shoreham Plant which was completed on Long Island in New York State at a cost of 5 Billion dollars but was never allowed to operate.

* Non-uniform designs. The US Nuclear Power Industry never achieved economies of volume because every reactor design was different. Each developer put in their own tweaks and much of the equipment was custom built for each plant. This compounded the difficulties of obtaining NRC licensing approval since the NRC had to evaluate each individual design. (

There have been many issues that have recently been identified which have created problems for the nuclear industry. Some of these problems include technicians falling asleep during their shift, fictitious safety reports, and drug use by guards has caused many issues in the past. A nuclear accident can be detrimental, not only to the environment but also to the humans who reside nearby, there must be no toleration for such events. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) handles complaints from antinuclear activists. These lobbyists strive to make nuclear power plants too expensive to build, by demanding design changes which ultimately delay construction. Although there have been some positive outcomes from the activists, their central goal is to prevent nuclear power plants from existing. (Wikipedia) The basic operation of a nuclear power plant normally consists of the reactor vessel, turbine, generator, and the condenser. Fission, which is the process that generates energy, takes place in the reactor vessel when a neutron hits a uranium-235 atom and the uranium atom absorbs the neutron. The uranium atom subsequently becomes unstable and splits. Heat is released by the nuclear fission reaction which releases more neutrons. The discharged neutrons set off fission reactions of more uranium atoms, which create a chain reaction. (See the fission process illustration below) Each uranium fission reaction releases a small amount of heat. Billions of fission reactions occurring every second in the reactor vessel produce enough heat to generate electricity. (

The heat created by nuclear fission converts water in the reactor vessel into high-pressured steam. A sequence of pipes transports the steam to the turbine. Once the steam is in the turbine, it flows through the turbine revolving the blades approximately 1,800 revolutions per minute. The rotating blades produce electricity. Another series of pipes guides the steam through a condenser which cools and condenses steam to water. The cycle is completed when the water is returned to the reactor vessel. There are control rods inside the reactor vessel that are used to “control” the immense power exerted. Control rods are usually constructed from materials that have the ability to absorb neutrons, such as boron, silver, indium, cadmium and hafnium. The control rods cutback the fission rate when implanted in the reactor vessel, the power of the fission reaction is regulated by the quantity and depth of the control rods placed into the reactor vessel. To stop the fission chain reaction totally the control rods are set fully into position in the reactor vessel. (Nuclear Technology Exploring Possibilities) If there were no other energy source available in the world, the current supply of uranium would be able to sustain the world’s energy demands for well over 100 years. The prominent sources of uranium are in Canada, Australia, and Niger. As mentioned earlier, one of the biggest advantages of nuclear power is the fact that it produces a large amount of emission free energy. This is clearly a major advantage of nuclear energy, but with the pros come the cons. (Wikipedia)

Most of the uranium is still contained in a nuclear fuel bundle after it has been removed from a reactor. Nuclear fuel is comprised of uranium-238, which does not break up easily. Nuclear reprocessing is the process in which uranium and other elements in the spent fuel are separated.

The fission products produce waste from nuclear reactors, they are extremely radioactive and remain dangerous for thousands of years; they are no longer useful, and therefore, can be disposed of. Although fission products are the most dangerous form of nuclear waste, a reactor doesn't generate a great deal of them; a 1 GW nuclear reactor only generates about 3,600 pounds of fission products per year. (

Radioactive wastes transpire at all points of the nuclear fuel cycle - the process of creating electricity from nuclear resources. The fuel cycle encompasses the mining and milling of the uranium ore, its production into nuclear fuel, its use in the reactor, the management of the used fuel taken from the reactor after use and lastly the disposal of the wastes. (Nuclear Energy Institute)

The fuel cycle is often considered as two parts - the "front end" which involves the processes from mining to the use of uranium in the reactor - and the "back end" which is comprised of the removal of used fuel from the reactor and its consequent treatment and disposal. The back end is where radioactive wastes are a major issue.

The controlling of nuclear waste disposal is terrifying for many people. They are uneasy because of the range of problems that could be caused by human error. Past errors that have transpired in the nuclear industry frighten people into believing that nuclear energy should be avoided. Just the word “nuclear” instills fear among many people because of the ability to harness nuclear power into weapons of mass destruction.(Zehner) It’s true, nuclear waste is dangerous.  In order to maintain environmental safety and the safety of the world’s population, dependable control of radioactive waste products, such as uranium and plutonium, are closely monitored. This is becoming more and more of concern as several nuclear power plants are entering the end of their lifecycle. (Mycle Schneider) In the United States nuclear rods are stored in water-filled pools at the plant site; this is causing apprehension of a possible leak or accident. (Zehner) The reality is that establishments accountable for the nuclear waste disposal are held responsible and operate under very restricted processes and regulations in regards to inspections and safety.

Nuclear energy is clean and safe. However, nuclear accidents such as Chernobyl in the Soviet Union terrify people. On 26 April 1986, one of the reactors exploded releasing radiation ravaging a 20 mile radius, affecting the rest of the world as well. The cause of the Chernobyl accident was thought to be the result negligence of plant operators. (Mycle Schneider) Accidents happen, but generally the disposal of nuclear waste is operated dependably. If there was any good that came from the Chernobyl accident, it was lessons learned on handling nuclear meltdowns and it has assisted in avoiding future problems.

The effects on the environment of coal by-products are far worse than those of nuclear energy. Nuclear waste can be contained and disposed of easily, more so than that of coal. Nuclear waste’s toxicity has a shelf life and an expiration date. Coal power by-products do not. (The International Conservation Society)

Nuclear waste products are buried in sealed containers for storage. Currently, since there is not a central storage area, nuclear waste produced in the United States is usually stored near one of the 104 nuclear power plant locations across the country. Some other nuclear waste products are processed by transmutation which changes it to a much less toxic substance. Generally speaking, most countries, due to careful processes, are very conscientious in the disposal of nuclear waste. (Zehner) The major concern of nuclear fission is a nuclear meltdown, which is described as severe heating and a lack of sufficient cooling at the reactor core. The reactor core can continue to produce heat even after the control rods have stopped the fission process. (Zehner) The effects of a nuclear accident are catastrophic, but the probability that an accident will occur are extremely low. The design of a nuclear power plant has a specific plan in preventing accidents, diminishing their possible effects. The goal of this strategy is a series of back up plans; if one fails there is always another plan to offset the possibility of harm to the environment. There is the possibility that each of these plans could fail sequentially, but the chances of that happening are small.

The design of a nuclear power plant allows for several “steps” that act as a radiation shield, first there is a concrete liner which houses the pressure vessel. Then there is a steel containment vessel, where the reactor and plant operators are who maintain the reactor. The steel containment vessel aids in preventing any leakage of radioactive materials from the plant. Protecting the steel containment vessel is an outer concrete building. This building is intended to be resilient enough to endure the possible damage that could occur during an earthquake or the impact of a Boeing 747. These structures are essential in preventing the expulsion of any harmful radiation if an accident should happen. Chernobyl lacked this back-up design which permitted radioactive material to escape. (Kang)

Even with the little amount of nuclear energy currently utilized in the world, it has lessened the world’s reliance on coal and oil. As the demand for energy increases along with technological advances, we must look at resolutions to lower carbon dioxide emissions as well as viable solutions to preserve the environment. It’s just not realistic to install solar panels on every home or a windmill on every hill. The challenge for our future is the ability to provide enough fuel to power the people. Fossil fuels will not last forever, there has to be a better option. Nuclear fission produces a great amount of energy, little waste and it could be a very efficient resolution to the energy crisis the world is facing.

Works Cited
Andrew Zimmerman Jones, Guide. Physics. 2012. 28 May 2012 <>. David Haarmeyer, PowerAdvocate. "Nuclear New Build Cost Visibility and Predictability." Power Engineering 1 October 2008: 24. Hibbs, Mark. "Nuclear Energy 2011: A Watershed Year." Feature. 2012. Kang, Duyeon Kim and Jungmin. "Where Nuclear Safety and Security Meet." Report. 2012. Lamb, Marshall Brian and Robert. How Stuff Works. 2012. 15 May 2012 <>. Long, Tony. Wired. 27 June 2012. 28 June 2012 <>. Mycle Schneider, Antony Froggatt, and Steve Thomas. "2010-2011 World Nuclear Industry Status Report." Report. 2011. Nuclear Energy Institute. Nuclear Waste Disposal. 2012. 28 May 2012 <>. Nuclear Power Plants, World-Wide. European Nuclear Society. 13 Jan 2011. 28 May 2012 <>. Nuclear Technology Exploring Possibilities. 2010. 3 June 2012 <>. 27 July 2010. 15 June 2012 <>. 1995-2012. 18 June 2012 <>. The International Conservation Society. 2012. 15 May 2012 <>. Travis Madsen, Frontier Group, Maryland PIRG Foundation Johanna Neumann and CalPIRG Education Fund Emily Rusch. The High Cost of Nuclear

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