Energy Crisis: Nuclear vs Renewable Sources
Is nuclear power the best way to meet the ever-increasing energy needs of the planet, or do alternative energy sources provide a viable alternative?
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The majority of the world's electricity is currently produced via fossil fuels. These are a finite ...
The majority of the world's electricity is currently produced via fossil fuels. These are a finite resource and will run out shortly. Current (2005) high oil prices reflect both rapidly rising demand for energy across the globe, and the limited supply of fossil fuels to meet this need. Although estimates are very variable as to exactly how long fossil fuels will last it is possible that oil will be exhausted within 50 years and coal within 25 years. It is therefore a necessity to find a new source of energy; we must therefore start to convert to nuclear energy now (so there is not a major crisis when fossil fuels do run out) and invest in nuclear energy for the future.
It is a curious fact that the number of further years that fossil fuel resources will last has remained unchanged for the last few decades! It is virtually impossible to predict how long these resources will last because there are undiscovered resources and because the rate of use cannot be predicted accurately. There are still vast unexploited resources in Canada and Siberia (to name but two). In addition some estimates predict that the lifetime of natural gas is about 350 years! There is no need at the moment to search for a new power source. That money would be better spent on creating technology to clean the output from power stations. We can explore other sources of energy when it becomes necessary in the future. When we do so it will be from a much more advanced basis making development easier.
In many senses nuclear energy is clean. It does not produce gaseous emissions such as greenhouse ga...
In many senses nuclear energy is clean. It does not produce gaseous emissions such as greenhouse gases, which are harmful either to the population or to the environment. It is true that it does produce radioactive waste. Since this is in solid form it can be dealt with much more easily and stored away from centres of population. The damage caused to the environment and populations due to the burning of fossil fuels is far in excess of the damage done to the environment due to the nuclear industry including even the Chernobyl catastrophe. In this sense nuclear energy is very much preferable to the burning of fossil fuels at the moment. Furthermore, as new technology becomes available to allow the more efficient use of nuclear fuel, less nuclear waste will be produced. (A recent example is the development of the fast breeder reactor, which uses fuel much more efficiently.) However, this trend will only continue with investment. Judging from the pace of development of nuclear technology since its inception it is fair to say that with more investment nuclear energy will become an even more desirable source of energy with many of its current drawbacks curtailed. The high price of oil at present looks set to continue, and makes the economic case for investment in nuclear power even more attractive.
Even apart from the safety issues, there are a number of problems with nuclear power. Firstly, it is expensive and relatively inefficient. The cost of building reactors is enormous and the price of subsequently decommissioning them also huge. Without massive government subsidy the nuclear industry cannot make money and building new plants is uneconomic compared to other methods of power generation.
Then there is also the problem of waste. Nuclear waste can remain radioactive for thousands of years. It must be stored for all this time away from water into which it can dissolve and far from any tectonic activity. This is virtually impossible and there are serious concerns over the state of waste discarded even a few decades ago. Governments have frequently resorted to dumping waste into the sea; an action which it has been shown has lead to an increase in radioactivity along many coastlines.
It is unfortunately the case that the nuclear industry has had bad reputation for safety. Not all o...
It is unfortunately the case that the nuclear industry has had bad reputation for safety. Not all of this reputation has been deserved. The overwhelming majority of nuclear reactors have functioned safely and effectively for their entire lifetimes. The two major nuclear accidents, at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, were both in old style reactors, made worse in the latter case by poor Soviet safety standards. In this debate, the reactors the proposition are advocating are new reactors built to the highest safety standards (such as those under construction in Finland at present). Such reactors have a perfect safety record. Perhaps the best guarantee of safety standards in the nuclear industry is the increasing transparency with which the industry is presenting itself. Many of the problems in its early days were caused by excessive control due to the origin of nuclear energy from military applications. As the gap between the two separates so the nuclear industry becomes more accountable.
The nuclear industry has a shameful safety record. We can pick out a number of separate problems. There is always the risk of a meltdown or explosion. At Three Mile Island we were minutes away from the former and at Chernobyl the unthinkable actually happened. The fall out from Chernobyl can still be detected in our atmospheres. The effects on the local people and the environment were devastating. It is perfectly true that modern nuclear reactors are safer but they are not perfectly safe. There is always that chance of a disaster and if we build more reactors then sooner or later there will be another Chernobyl. It is quite simply not worth the risk. The dumping of nuclear waste, as explained above, also presents a host of problems. There have also been a number of 'minor' accidents in nuclear power stations recently. Reprocessed fuel from the United Kingdom was recently rejected from Japan after it emerged that test results had been fabricated. The Nuclear Inspectorate in the UK has also been very critical of safety standards within the industry. We have been told by the industry that these are problems are being ironed out and that they will not happen again. Time and time again, however, these same problems reoccur and we have to conclude that the industry is not to be trusted. It is too dominated by the profit motive to really care about safety and too shrouded in secrecy to be accountable. In addition, the nuclear industry has had a terrible cost on the lives on those living around power plants. It cannot be a coincidence that the rate of occurrence of certain types of cancer, such as leukaemia, is much higher in the population around nuclear plants.
It is also imperative to look at the alternatives when assessing in what form of energy to invest. ...
It is also imperative to look at the alternatives when assessing in what form of energy to invest. For the reasons explained above (diminishing supply, environmental damage) we can rule fossil fuels out immediately. We also see enormous problems with every form of alternative energy. The most efficient source of renewable energy has been hydroelectric power. However, this usually creates more problems than it solves. Building a large dam necessarily floods an enormous region behind the dam which in turn can displace tens of thousands of people. There are also enormous ecological costs to dam building. A classical example is the Aswan dam in Egypt along the Nile. Not only did many thousands lose their homes but the yearly inundation of the Nile, which fertilised the surrounding land for thousands of year, was also stopped. The subsequent silting up of the river destroyed much wildlife. A similar story of ecological destruction and human homelessness surrounded the more recent Three Gorges dam project in China.
Solar energy has never lived up to expectations since it is hugely inefficient. A solar panel the size of Europe would be needed to power a city the size of London! Wind energy is only marginally better with an unsightly wind farm the size of Texas needed to provide the energy for Texas alone. The worst performers of all have been geothermal and tidal energy which have been hopelessly inefficient because no rocks have been found that are hot enough and no waves have been found that are strong enough! The great irony is that not only are most renewable sources inefficient but many are also ecologically unsound! The opposition to the building wind farms in certain areas has been just as strong as the opposition to nuclear power because wind farms destroy the scenery, being so unsightly and large, and may also be bad for wildlife.
The proposition lists a number of problems with alternative energy. It is perfectly true that alternative energy is not efficient enough to serve the energy needs of the world's population today. However, with investment all these methods could be made efficient enough to serve mankind. It is also true that initiation of alternative energy schemes, such as the Aswan dam, have caused problems. But the opposition are not advocating a blanket solution to every problem. Many dam projects, for example, could have been replaced by solar power had the technology been available, without the downside to the dams. In addition, there is almost always one renewable resource that a given country can exploit; tides for islands, the sun for equatorial countries, hot rocks for volcanic regions etc. and so any given country can in principle become self-sufficient with renewable energy. The global distribution of uranium is hugely uneven (much more so than fossil fuels) and the use of nuclear power therefore gives countries with uranium deposits disproportionate economic power. It is far from inconceivable that uranium could be subject to the same kind of monopoly that the OPEC (Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries) places on oil. Indeed, if the whole world went over to nuclear power, supplies of usable uranium ore would run out within a few short decades. This prevents countries from achieving self-sufficiency in energy production.
The nuclear industry is a major employer. It creates numerous jobs at the moment and with investmen...
The nuclear industry is a major employer. It creates numerous jobs at the moment and with investment will create even more.
It is entirely fatuous to suggest that nuclear power is the only employment provider. There will always be roughly the same number of jobs in energy production. If spending on the nuclear industry were redirected to renewable energy then jobs would simply move from one to the other.
Spreading the peaceful use of nuclear power brings us important security benefits. Under the Non-Pr...
Spreading the peaceful use of nuclear power brings us important security benefits. Under the Non-Proliferation Treaty the declared nuclear weapons states (the USA, UK, Russia, France and China) have promised to assist other countries in gaining access to civilian nuclear power providing that they in turn do not seek nuclear weapons. This has only happened to a limited extent but as an increasing number of countries seek to use nuclear material for military purposes, it is in the interests of the declared nuclear weapons states to uphold their side of the bargain more vigorously, so that others can be held to theirs.
This security calculation is strengthened by events since the end of the Cold War. Many former Soviet nuclear scientists lost their jobs and may be tempted to sell their skills to the highest foreign bidder, including to rogue states seeking nuclear weapons. It is in our interest to promote peaceful use of nuclear technologies, encouraging these scientists to find employment in an industry which is both peaceful and useful.
Encouraging the further adoption of nuclear power is against our security interests. The scientific understanding and technology needed to generate nuclear power is the same as that needed to create nuclear weapons, and it is all too easy for rogue states to pretend they are only interested in peaceful uses while secretly pursuing military applications. This is the route India and Israel have followed, and that Iran may well be following at present.
Even if the intentions of foreign governments are good, widespread nuclear power plants are at risk of terrorism. This applies just as much in the USA or other western countries as it does in the developing world. If a September 11-style flying bomb was flown into a nuclear power plant, the potential disaster would be catastrophic. And the more nuclear material is transported around the world, the easier it will be for terrorists to get hold of some in order to make their own nuclear weapons. An atomic bomb might one day be within the reach of some international terrorist groups, but even today a simple 'dirty bomb' (in which highly-radioactive materials is blasted over an urban area using conventional explosives) could be deadly to many thousands of people.
What do you think?