Global warming due to human activity is now known as a fact not a theory. This, combined with high prices for oil owing to a world shortage has revived interest in nuclear energy as a way of both reducing our dependence upon oil and reducing the amount of greenhouse gas emissions. World oil supplies are expected to run out by 2030 and gas by 2045. At the very least there will not be enough oil produced to meet increased demand from the growing economies of China and India and from the rise in world population from 6 billion to 10 billion.
Nuclear energy is the world's largest source of emission-free energy. Nuclear power plants produce no controlled air pollutants, such as sulphur and particulates, or greenhouse gases. The use of nuclear energy in place of other energy sources helps to keep the air clean, preserve the Earth's climate, avoid ground level ozone formation and prevent acid rain. Between 1973 and 2002, nuclear generation avoided the emission of 74.5 million tons of sulphur dioxide and 37.7 million tons of nitrogen oxides.
Some greenhouse gas amounts are emitted when the plants are being built, when the uranium ore is converted into fuel, and for the fuel waste handling and storage processes. However, the amount of carbon dioxide (the most prevalent greenhouse gas) emitted while electricity is being produced is much less from nuclear power than from natural gas or from coal. Research in Sweden has shown that nuclear power stations emit 3.3 grams of CO2 per kilowatt/hour compared to 400 grams from natural gas power stations and 700 grams from coal-fired power stations.
At this stage nuclear power plants provide relatively low-cost, predictable power at stable prices. Many countries depend on them for their electric power system. But Germany, which is a major nuclear energy user, is planning to phase it out and to increase its use of energy from renewable sources such as the sun, wind, water, and biomass. Germany has a scheme whereby owners of local utilities supplying energy from renewable sources can sell the electricity they produce to the national grid at a higher price. Some argue that residents in Germany pay the highest prices in Europe, while others respond that the price is only 5% higher and already cheaper than using coal.
Many conservative governments, such as Australia, will be looking at the price per kilowatt/hour but one of the attractions of nuclear power is its relative economy of use: the energy in one uranium fuel pellet - the size of the tip of your little finger - is the equivalent of 17,000 cubic feet of natural gas, 1,780 pounds of coal, or 149 gallons of oil.
To produce electricity, it takes 1.0 lbs. of coal/kWh from coal plants using steam turbines, 0.48 lbs. of natural gas/kWh using steam turbines, 0.37 lbs. of natural gas/kWh using combined cycle technology, 0.58 lbs. of Heavy Oil/kWh using steam turbines, and .0000008 lbs. of Uranium enriched at 4% U235 and 96% U238 for use in a commercial nuclear reactor.
The big downside is the disposal of nuclear waste. Nuclear waste remains highly dangerous for thousands of years and accidents could devastate huge areas. We can build better containment facilities and improve security for existing nuclear waste but there is no completely safe way to store radioactive waste. This is a strong argument against using nuclear energy and that instead we must step up research and development for safe and sustainable methods of energy production and that we must phase out existing nuclear power stations.
There is also the risk of radioactive material leaking out from tailings at uranium mines. Perhaps the best solution however is to stop uranium production at source, in other words at the mines.
Some scientists have the opinion that there is not enough time to develop energy from renewable resources so that it meets 100% of the world’s energy needs and that the greater use of nuclear power has to be considered as a way of slowing down global warming.
Another argument against nuclear energy is the threat of acts of terrorism on power facilties or the theft of material to make nuclear weapons. In addition there have been many accidents at nuclear power facilities worldwide since the 1950s, many of which involved leakage of radioactive material. Among the worst and perhaps the most notorious of these were Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania (1979) and Chernobyl in Ukraine (1986).Three Mile Island was permanently closed as the site is unsafe: there was a huge clean-up operation and a major loss of public support for nuclear power in the USA. At Chernobyl, radioactive fallout blew across large parts of Europe and hundreds of thousands of people had to be evacuated from areas of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus. 56 people, including children, died as a direct result of the accident and many thousands are expected to die from cancers through being exposed to radiation.
Since Chernobyl many countries have continued to use nuclear power without major incidents. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency’s Power Reactor Information System database, atomic energy accounts for 16 percent of electrical production worldwide. On the 7th January 2007, thirty one countries worldwide were operating 442 nuclear plants for electricity generation. Twenty-nine new nuclear plants were under construction in 12 countries. The largest users of nuclear energy are the USA, France, Russia and Japan. China and India are both expanding their nuclear power programmes to keep up with their industrial growth.
International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) list of nuclear reactors operating.
Country : Number of reactors : % of Total Power Production
Reactors under construction in 2006:
Greater use of nuclear power is not inevitable. We should urge politicians to establish an international law to ensure that nuclear waste generated by a country is disposed of in that country. This would prevent expensive and dangerous waste being transported half way around the globe. Ships are vulnerable to piracy and terrorism. A collision, sinking or running aground would be a major disaster.
We could also campaign for more government assistance to develop renewable energies that are greenhouse neutral and to expedite research into methods of producing clean-burning coal and the disposal of any carbon dioxide generated.
What you can do
Join a local Direct Action group promoting alternatives to nuclear energy.
Invest in alternative technology companies.
Buy alternative systems such as solar cells for your home.
Encourage your local councils and schools to purchase alternative energy technology.