The Superior Non-Renewable Alternative?
BENJAMIN J DOWDLE
UNIVERSITY OF WASHINGTON
Throughout the first half of the 20th century, scientists and governments throughout the industrial world began to explore the concept of nuclear theory in an attempt to harness the powerful forces that hold together the nucleus of an atom. Unlike non-renewable energy sources, such as coal or natural gas, nuclear power plants do not emit global warming emissions while operating. Therefore, an expansion of nuclear power throughout the world could be one way for populations to meet their future energy needs, simultaneously lowering their carbon emissions. However, the expansion of nuclear energy comes at a price, unforeseen by the general public. The price of pursuing nuclear energy coincides with many serious safety and security risks, such as its potential to produce catastrophic accidents and ability to have profound human, and environmental consequences. Additionally, the price tag for building new nuclear reactors is much more expensive that most other alternatives. This leads to the question of whether or not the expansion of nuclear energy production will prove to be more sufficient than the alternative use of fossil fuels. Through a comparison of carbon emissions between fossil fuels and nuclear energy, evidence supporting the long term cost effectiveness of nuclear power plants, and an analysis of nuclear disasters and how they could can be avoided in the future, I will prove that nuclear energy, while controversial, is a more successful method in achieving low-carbon energy throughout the world. In my paper, I will argue that although the cost of harnessing nuclear energy is high in regards to environmental, economic, and human consequences, the benefits of harnessing nuclear energy outweigh the consequences. First, I will explain some of the basics and history behind nuclear power plants, including how they operate and a brief timeline of major scientific breakthroughs. Next, I will briefly explain how nuclear power plants have the ability to reduce worldwide carbon emissions, as compared to fossil fuel energy production. Additionally, I will provide a counter argument against the pursuit of nuclear energy and explain some of the negative environmental, economical, and health-related impacts of nuclear power plants. I will conclude my paper by providing evidence, which supports the fact that although the designs of current nuclear reactors are not perfect, the benefits of nuclear energy far outweigh the consequences. In addition, the advancement of nuclear energy can lead to more effective reactors at lower costs. Although the current costs and risks associated with nuclear energy are very high, government funding towards the research of nuclear energy will lead to a more effective energy source. In turn, nuclear energy will possess the capability of becoming not only a low-carbon energy source, but a safe one as well. Although the concept of atomic radiation, atomic change, and nuclear fission was developed in the late 19th century, the world first witnessed the true power of nuclear fission on August 6th, 1945 and again on August 9th, when the U.S. dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki respectively. This bomb, killing over 200,000 people, caused irreversible damage to the environment, and an end to World War II (Asia Society). This display of nuclear power by the U.S. subsequently led to a nuclear arms race, in which the major world powers, mainly the Soviet Union, began stockpiling, researching, and perfecting their nuclear arsenal. These tasks were rapidly carried out in order to balance foreign military power against the U.S. Despite the fact that the majority of nuclear research in the years after World War II focused on the advancement of nuclear weapons, global research and attention in the 1950’s began to focus on more peaceful purposes of nuclear fission, notably for power generation. In other words, the nuclear arms race, while a dangerous time in history, led to the inevitable advancement of nuclear science. The culmination of decades of research gave way to the creation of the world’s first commercial nuclear power plant, APS-1, in Obninsk, Russia on June 26th, 1954. Although the APS-1 power plant only generated a net electrical output of 5 megawatts, it was a major scientific breakthrough that opened the door to the construction of commercial nuclear power plants worldwide. As of 2013, there are 437 (68 more under construction) nuclear power plants worldwide, spanning over thirty-one different countries with an installed electrical net capacity of 372 gigawatts (GW) (European Nuclear Society), which provide over 11% of the world’s energy needs (World Nuclear Association). The two main designs of reactors that are used in the majority of nuclear power plants today consist of pressurized (PWR) and boiling (BWR) water reactors. In a PWR, water passes over a reactor core, which is made up of nuclear fuel (uranium, plutonium, etc.), acting as a moderator and preventing coolant from flowing into the turbine. This entire process is contained in a pressurized primary loop. The water in the primary loop produces steam in the secondary loop, which drives a turbine and generates electricity (Figure A). On the other hand, in a BWR, water passes over the reactor core to act as a moderator and coolant, while also providing the steam source for the turbine (Nave, “Hyper-Physics”) (Figure B). In both designs, nuclear power plants must shut down every 18-24 months in order to remove and replace spent fuel. Since the spent fuel has released most of its energy, it becomes radioactive waste and is stored in either steel-lined, concrete vaults with water, or above ground in steel-reinforced concrete containers with inner canisters (Environmental Protection Agency). Under the direct disposal method, spent nuclear fuel is stored in these containers for 40-50 years, which is the approximate amount of time that heat and radioactivity levels have fallen to one thousandth of their original level. The used fuel is then encapsulated into casks ready for indefinite storage or permanent disposal underground. Additionally, some countries including the UK, China, and France have begun to research different ways of reprocessing and recycling spent fuel by separating fissionable plutonium from irradiated nuclear fuel (World Nuclear Association). As the human population continues to grow, the amount of energy needed to sustain our society will also continue to grow. Currently, electricity production emits approximately 10 gigatons, or 37% of the global greenhouse emissions (GHG). However, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) expects electricity demand to increase by 43% over the next 20 years, which means that the amount of GHG electricity production emits could grow substantially (World Nuclear Association). Although, electricity production worldwide makes up a large percentage of GHG emissions, nuclear energy production makes up only a small fraction of the current 10 gigatons of GHG per year. It has been estimated by the World Nuclear Association that for every gigawatt/hour (GWh) that coal produces, an average of 888 tons of CO2 is emitted, and for every GWh that oil produces, an average 733 tons of CO2 is emitted. In comparison, for every GWh that nuclear energy produces, an average of only 29 tons of CO2 is emitted, which is substantially less than both coal and oil combined (World Nuclear Association). To put the impact of how much carbon offset nuclear energy has into perspective, if the EU’s 146 nuclear power plants were removed from the 2006 energy mix, and the individual contributions from all other sources were increased by the same factor, the outcome would equal an increase of over 675 million tons of CO2 or a 49% increase of GHG emissions (European Nuclear Society). These facts serve to show that when the number of CO2 emissions are compared between all non-renewable energy sources, it is clear that nuclear energy functions with the least amount of carbon dioxide emissions, thus leading to a safer environment. Despite the fact that nuclear energy produces fewer carbon emissions than non-renewable energy sources, there are still plenty concerns regarding the possible risks of pursuing nuclear energy. Although there is no perfect energy source available in regards to safety and environmental impact, nuclear opposition groups argue that governments should focus on harnessing energy sources that pose less of a risk. For example, the initial costs associated with the construction of nuclear power plants are much higher than other power plants. From the beginning, harnessing nuclear power has been extremely expensive, requiring large subsidies and loan guarantees from governments, and has continued to stay that way. According to a report by Synapse Energy Economics, Inc. “A preliminary estimate for two new 1,000 megawatt nuclear plants proposed by Progress Energy in Florida (FPL) is $17 billion, and that cost is likely to grow as required revisions to Westinghouse’s AP-1000 advanced reactor design add years to the time before those reactors will be ready for use” (Haskill, “Nuclear Power: The Negatives”). According to Dr. Lee Langston, a writer for American Scientist “current estimates for the capital costs of a nuclear plant run the range of $5,000 to $6,000 per KW. By comparison, coal plant capital costs are about 2,000 per KW and a high efficiency gas turbine combined cycle plant are in the $600 to $1,000 per KW range”, which goes to show that the initial costs of both natural gas and coal plants are much cheaper than nuclear power plants in the short run. In addition to the high economic cost of building and maintaining nuclear power plants, there is also a very high risk of danger towards the environment and for anyone living within a 50-mile radius of a nuclear power plant. Although there have only been two major accidents involving nuclear power plants, they have proved to have very catastrophic and long-lasting effects. The first major catastrophe involving a nuclear power plant occurred in Chernobyl, Ukraine on April 26th, 1986 when reactor number four at the Chernobyl power plant exploded and caught on fire resulting in the immediate death of 31 workers and the release of large quantities of radioactive particles into the atmosphere. The long-term effects of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster include the dispersal of radioactive particles in over thirteen countries, the evacuation and resettlement of over 350,000 people that lived in heavily irradiated areas, an increased risk of cancer and birth defects of workers that were involved in the cleanup efforts, the death of over 5,000 from thyroid cancers, and the radioactive contamination of water sources, flora, and fauna surrounding Chernobyl. Additionally, the Ukrainian government created a “zone of alienation” that stretches nineteen miles in each direction and is largely uninhabited. It has been estimated that this area will not be safe for human life again for another 20,000 years (International Atomic Energy Agency). The second, and more recent nuclear power plant disaster took place in Fukushima, Japan on March 11th, 2011 when the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant was hit by a tsunami triggered by the Tohoku earthquake. The damage from the tsunami resulted in the meltdown of three of the plant’s six nuclear reactors and the subsequent release 36,000 terabecquerels (TBq) of radioactive cesium into the atmosphere, which is about 40% of the total released from Chernobyl. Although there were no short-term radiation exposure fatalities reported, about 300,000 people were evacuated from the area and according to the French Institute for Radiological Protection and Nuclear Safety as much as 27.1 peta becquerels of cesium 137 entered the pacific ocean, which have the possibility of threatening near-shore species and irradiating marine life all throughout the Pacific Ocean (Demetriou, “Japan: Fukushima Disaster Released Twice as Much Radiation as Initially Estimated."). These examples provide evidence that unlike other sources of energy, nuclear power comes with the risk of long-term catastrophic consequences following a serious accident. One of the last main arguments nuclear opposition groups have against harnessing nuclear energy is the environmental impact nuclear power plants have on water sources. According to Dr. Hugh Haskill of the Institute of Energy and Environmental Research “Keeping the reactor cool and condensing the steam from the generating turbines demand a large and reliable supply of water — upwards of 20 million gallons of water is evaporated into the atmosphere daily from a typical nuclear plant with a closed-cycle cooling system. Additionally, cooling water discharged into a river or the ocean re-enters the stream at a higher temperature which can have detrimental effects on downstream marine life” ((Haskill, “Nuclear Power: The Negatives”). The argument that Dr. Haskill provides is important because it shows that although nuclear energy may be a clean source of power in regards to CO2 emissions, nuclear energy production has the ability to effect the environment in many other ways. As my counter-argument pointed out there are currently multiple flaws regarding the economic effectiveness, safety, and environmental impact of nuclear power plants. However, as in other industries, the future design and operation of nuclear power plants aims to minimize the likelihood of accidents, avoid major environmental consequences, and become more cost effective. Nuclear energy has come a long way since the first power plant went online in 1954. As nuclear energy research continues to become more advanced, it is important for governments to continue to fund new nuclear power plants in order to curb the amount of CO2 that non-renewable electricity production emits. Currently, fossil fuel power plants have the advantage of lower capital costs, however, according to The Energy Information Administration’s Annual Energy Outlook for 2014 report, the projected levelized cost of an average nuclear power plant is at 10.8 cents per KWh, which is very competitive with the levelized cost of both coal plants, which is at 12.3 cents per KWh and combined cycle gas turbine plant is 6.6 cents per KWh (Langston, “A Path For Nuclear Power’). Not only do nuclear power plants have competitive levelized costs compared to natural gas and coal plants, but they are also much more efficient at producing energy. According to the European Nuclear Society (ENS) “With a complete combustion or fission, approx. 8 kWh of heat can be generated from 1 kg of coal, approx. 12 kWh from 1 kg of mineral oil and around 24,000,000 kWh from 1 kg of uranium-235. Related to one kilogram, uranium-235 contains two to three million times the energy equivalent of oil or coal”. Additionally, uranium, which is the most used nuclear fuel, is a relatively common metal that is found in rocks and seawater. There is an estimated 5,327,200 tons of known recoverable resources of uranium throughout the world. This means that although uranium is a non-renewable energy source, if used correctly, it could be used in energy production for hundreds of years to come (World Nuclear Association). Despite the fact that there have been two major catastrophic events concerning nuclear power plants, there has always been a strong awareness of the potential hazard of both nuclear criticality and release of radioactive materials from generating electricity with nuclear power. These two major incidents, along with the minor nuclear incident on Three Mile Island, Pennsylvania, are the only ones to occur in over 14,500 cumulative reactor-years of commercial nuclear power operation in 33 countries. The April 1986 disaster at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine was the product of a flawed Soviet reactor design coupled with serious mistakes made by the plant operators, which were direct consequences of Cold War isolation and the resulting lack of any safety culture that could have largely been avoided. Fukushima, on the other hand, had all the safety features needed to shut down a reactor core in the event of a natural disaster and was even made up of six BWR units that were designed to withstand an 8.2 magnitude earthquake and a 5.7-meter tsunami. Unfortunately the Tohoku earthquake was 7 to 8 times more powerful than an 8.2 magnitude earthquake. Although the reactor units that were in operation began to automatically shut down, the tsunami was over 15-meters high and knocked out generators that were needed to power water pumps to cool the reactor cores. However, while this event was unforeseen and its impact unpredicted, engineers now know to place their generators at a safer height in the future so they can operate as designed. The sheer magnitude of the earthquake also allows future engineers of nuclear power plants to prepare for disasters of that size and thus reinforce the materials used to protect the core of the nuclear reactor. In a way, it takes disaster such as this to constantly be improving, and this event was no exception to that improvement. This will no doubt lead to the advancement and construction of plants that are much more prepared for a disaster of this magnitude. Even though nuclear power is cost competitive with other forms of electricity generation, except where there is direct access to low-cost fossil fuels, the world still relies on fossil fuels to produce the majority of their energy. As of 2011 the International Environmental Agency (IEA) has calculated that only 11.6% of the world’s electricity is produced by nuclear power, compared to 41.2% by coal and 21.8% by natural gas (World Nuclear Association). However, in order to meet future energy needs while achieving security of supply and minimization of carbon dioxide emissions, the IEA highlights the importance of the growth of nuclear energy due to the fact that nuclear power could make a major contribution to reducing dependence on imported gas and curbing CO2 emissions in a cost effective way, since uranium fuel is abundant (World Nuclear Association). The greatest misconception that the public has towards nuclear power plants is that they will all behave in which Chernobyl and Fukushima did. In addition, the public also fears the fact that certain environmental damage will surely continue with the construction of more plants. However, as previously stated in my thesis, it is clear that the advancement of nuclear energy far outweighs any of these concerns in that these plants are improving in both safety and in their environmental impact due to government funding and advancement in the research of how to operate a nuclear power plant safely. In other words, this is not a method of energy that the world should give up on based on how they operated in the past. Nuclear science is the future, and the future always contains room for positive and effective change.
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