Regression or Progression: The Nuclear Option

‘I have no doubt that we will be successful in harnessing the sun’s energy… If sunbeams were weapons of war, we would have had solar energy centuries ago.’ ~Sir George Porter, quoted in The Observer, 26 August 1973

‘The use of solar energy has not been opened up because the oil industry does not own the sun.’ ~Ralph Nader, quoted in Linda Botts, ed., Loose Talk, 1980

A New Atomic Age?

Human-induced climate change is widely acknowledged (unless you work in the oil industry or the Bush administration) as being one of the most pressing issues for the global community today. It affects every aspect of the living world, including planetary ecology, plant, animal, and human welfare, agriculture, water supplies, local and global economies, sea levels and extreme weather events. All of this is fed by an ever-increasing demand for energy, which for the most part is derived by the burning of fossil fuels.

This conundrum has caused a renewed interest (amongst some) in the realm of nuclear-generated energy. Proponents of nuclear power claim that not only does it provide a steady and prolific stream of energy, but also does not depend on hydrocarbon supplies from unstable regimes, as uranium is one of the most abundant resources on the planet. They maintain that nuclear power is safe and efficient, and that the 1957 Windscale fire in the UK, Three Mile Island in the US in 1979, and even Chernobyl have killed massively fewer people than the oil and coal industries combined. What’s more, they claim modern reactors are inherently safer than those built 20 or 30 years ago.

So What’s the Problem?

Well, for starters, the various stages of the nuclear process require huge amounts of energy, far more than less complex forms of electricity production. Ironically, most of this energy comes in the form of fossil fuels; therefore nuclear power generation emits quite a high level of greenhouse gases in an indirect fashion. Recent studies estimate that nuclear power production causes the emission of just three times fewer greenhouse gases than modern natural gas power stations.

Nuclear energy is economically viable option only under a very restricted analysis. Once you factor in the exorbitant costs of construction, insurance, waste disposal and lengthy decommissioning of spent reactors, you realise the industry can only function with the benefit of huge government subsidies; money which could be used to develop re-usable green energy production instead.

Although progress has been made in increasing safety standards, nuclear reactors are still not inherently safe and problems are still common.

Then there is this little problem of radioactive waste: a very serious dilemma with nuclear power that has existed since its introduction and is still not adequately resolved. For the storage of high radioactive nuclear waste there are still no final repositories in operation.

Radioactivity arises naturally from the decay of particular forms of some elements, called isotopes. Radioactive wastes comprise a variety of materials requiring different types of management to protect people and the environment. They are normally classified as low-level, medium-level or high-level wastes, according to the amount and types of radioactivity in them.

A major factor in managing wastes is the time that they are likely to remain hazardous. This depends on the kinds of radioactive isotopes in them, and particularly the half-lives characteristic of each of those isotopes. The half-life is the time it takes for a given radioactive isotope to lose half of its radioactivity. The various radioactive isotopes have half-lives ranging from fractions of a second to minutes, hours or days, through to billions of years.

High-level waste may be the spent fuel itself, or the principal waste from reprocessing this. While comprising only 3% of the volume of all radioactive waste, it holds 95% of the radioactivity. It contains the highly radioactive fission products and some heavy elements with long-lived radioactivity. It generates a considerable amount of heat and requires cooling, as well as special shielding during handling and transport. If the spent fuel is reprocessed, the separated waste is vitrified by incorporating it into borosilicate (Pyrex) glass which is sealed inside stainless steel canisters for eventual disposal deep underground or in the oceans (for future generations to deal with!)

Other Hazards

Although progress has been made in increasing safety standards, nuclear reactors are still not inherently safe and problems are still common. Apart from possible technical failures, the risk of human error can never be excluded. The concern is this risk will grow now that the onset of privatisation and deregulation of the electricity market has forced nuclear operators to increase their efficiency and reduce costs, mostly by decreasing their work force.

Exposure to radioactive fallout leads to genetic disorders, cancer and leukaemia.

After all, it only takes one disaster, the consequences of which are obvious: exposure to radioactive fallout leads to genetic disorders, cancer and leukaemia. There are also health risks associated with the day-to-day production of nuclear power, as employees working in power plants are constantly exposed to low-level radioactivity.

One of the by-products of most nuclear reactors is plutonium-239, which can be used in nuclear weapons. Nuclear installations could also become targets for terrorist attacks and radioactive material could be used by terrorists to make ‘dirty bombs’. In fact, reactor-grade plutonium is even more desirable than weapon-grade in crude bomb designs that might be used by terrorists, because reactor-grade makes initiation of the nuclear chain reaction even easier.

Energy Alternatives

There are plenty of alternative energy sources at our disposal. The most obvious of which being the largest thermonuclear reactor of all, the sun. Not only is this the source of all life on Earth, but the sun’s energy is self-generated, free, and in constant and abundant supply. Even better, the costs of renewable sources are falling rapidly: in the last 10 years the cost per kWh of electricity from wind turbines fell by 50%, and that from photovoltaic cells by 30%. The costs of nuclear power are rising, despite the fact that nuclear power has been hugely subsidised over the last half century.

It is possible to supply all of the world’s energy needs through renewable sources based on current technology.

In the medium term it is possible to supply all of the world’s energy needs through renewable sources based on current technology. Renewable energy sources have multiple benefits: they are free from greenhouse gas emissions and can also increase diversity in the energy market. They can provide long-term sustainability of our energy supply and more importantly, they can be used in rural areas of less developed countries that are not connected to gas and electricity networks.

Still, at the end of the day, the single most effective way to reduce CO2 emissions is to reduce our energy demand. This is something we can all do by simply using less and conserving more.

It is in all our best interests.

Including that of future generations.

Words: AF Keck, Illustration: www.mothi.biz

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