Tag Archives: Nuclear Energy

Dope or Nope? Nuclear energy as alternative fuel

You probably don’t often think about nuclear energy, but maybe it’s time to take a deeper look.

Nuclear energy has been a controversial topic since its creation in the 1950s (think: Fukushima). But it now generates nearly 20 percent of the U.S’s total energy production, and will likely keep growing.

The important question now is: should the nuclear industry continue expanding?

Answering this question is tough, but in order to do so both sides of the argument must be examined. Is nuclear energy “dope” and a promising source for energy in the future? Or should the U.S. say “nope” and stop pushing nuclear altogether?

 

Dope! Keep nuclear coming

  1. Relatively small carbon emissions

Yep, nuclear plants can produce energy without emitting greenhouse gases. That’s a pretty big deal considering the pressure on countries all over the world to reduce carbon emissions. The only problem is lifecycle emissions.

While the production of energy itself is “green,” the steps involved in making nuclear plants aren’t. The Nuclear Energy Institute recognizes that the process of creating nuclear emits pollution in various stages. However, nearly all other forms of renewable energy generate emissions during their life cycles too.

The International Panel on Climate Change, known as IPCC, conducted a study of lifecycle emissions for all types of energy. They found that nuclear emissions are on par with lifecycle emissions from renewables, and are much less than fossil fuels. This indicates that nuclear energy could become a major replacement for traditional fossil fuels.

However, nuclear engineer and associate professor Nam Dinh of North Carolina State University favors an “all of the above” approach.

“By itself, nuclear energy cannot replace fossil fuels,” he said. “Other renewable energy technologies have become increasingly affordable and should be pursued aggressively. However, wind and solar have their limitations.”

 

  1. Ability to generate huge amounts of energy

 One of the biggest criticisms of renewables is their inability to generate large quantities of energy. But this is not the case with nuclear.

Nuclear power is fueled by an element called uranium. A single pellet of uranium, slightly bigger than a pencil eraser, is the energy equivalent to a ton of coal. This translates to 17,000 cubic feet of natural gas.

Further, a typical nuclear power plant generates enough energy to power 723,000 homes each year. Comparatively, over 14,000 tons of coal would have to be burned to produce that same amount of energy.

That’s a lot of carbon emissions. Nuclear prevents that unnecessary pollution from coal while generating far more energy.

 

  1. Reliable energy source

Nuclear power is the most reliable fuel source available. Its capacity factor, the ratio of actual power generated to maximum amount possible, is 91 percent. This is by far the highest of all energy sources.

Nuclear plants are also able to generate energy 24/7 for 18 to 24 months without interruption. This makes nuclear an important source that isn’t subject to fluctuations in price as much as oil or gas. It also means that nuclear can provide energy during times when energy demand and prices are high.

Dinh sees great reliability in the industry as a whole, beyond just the power capabilities of nuclear itself.

“As the operating experience accumulates, the technology becomes more reliable, and advanced designs emerge, the new plants are even more resilient to hazards or human errors,” he said.

 

Nope! Shut down nuclear ASAP

  1. Effects on the environment

 Nuclear power requires the mining of uranium, a non-renewable radioactive resource. Radioactivity is not to be taken lightly. As we’ve seen with disasters like Fukushima, nuclear radiation can be catastrophic to the environment and human lives.

Monika Kondura is an Environment and Ecology professor at UNC-Chapel Hill. She said that the release of radioactive radiation into the environment remains toxic for thousands of years.

“The radiation released into the environment would be associated with the loss of biodiversity and all the ecological benefits, and most importantly, with major detrimental effects on human health,” she said.

Studies have shown that radiation from the nuclear meltdown at Fukushima has been devastating to surrounding areas. Timothy Mousseau, a professor at the Univeristy of South Carolina, conducted a study on the effects of radiation on birds.

Mousseau and his team found the bird populations they were studying were 30 percent lower than expected. This is double the loss that was observed in a similar study conducted following the aftermath of Chernobyl.

A nuclear meltdown like Fukushima forces us to stop and consider the risks when investing in nuclear technology. While safety precautions have been improved since this accident, future breakdowns are never out of the question.

 

  1. Disposal of toxic waste

When determining how long a radioactive isotope will linger in the environment, scientists look at half-life. Half-life is the time it takes for the concentration of an isotope to fall to half its original value. The problem with nuclear power is that uranium has a half-life of millions of years.

This long half-life creates a lot of problems when it comes to disposing of toxic waste properly. Currently, radioactive waste from nuclear plants is stored in large cylinders lined with steel and filled with concrete and water. These canisters are kept on-site at nuclear plants.

Dihn said that this type of disposal method meets protection requirements. He’s also hopeful that better techniques will be available in the future.

“Future technology may bring better or stronger and more resilient materials for use as containment,” he said.

Other methods involve burial of waste, which presents other issues. Tunnels have been dug deep beneath earth’s surface to bury waste. Various countries also used ocean floor disposal, until its ban in 1993.

Both methods of burial bring up serious concerns with regard to the environment and possible leeching of waste. And the long half-life of uranium clearly makes the disposal process of nuclear waste even trickier.

 

  1. Large consumption of fresh water

Consumption of freshwater, or evaporation, can be a big deterrent of nuclear energy.

Nuclear uses once-through and wet-recirculating methods for cooling systems. Once-through cooling takes water from a nearby source, runs it through pipes, and then discharges it back into the source. This is problematic because of thermal pollution’s effect on local ecosystems.

Wet-recirculating is similar to once-through, but involves circulating water through the plant a second time before discharging it. This can consume even more water than once-through because more water is lost as steam. It can also harm ecosystems through thermal pollution.

Most importantly, in comparison to other fuel sources, nuclear consumes the most water. Nuclear even uses more than coal, despite coal’s reputation of consuming enormous amounts of freshwater.

Earth’s population and energy demand are growing exponentially, which makes freshwater resources increasingly valuable. So an energy resource that takes water from human mouths is another factor to consider when planning for the future.

 

So, what are you trying to say?

Clearly there are valid arguments for each side of nuclear energy, and the world will never agree which is right. What’s important is that nuclear energy hasn’t been ruled out as a source of alternative energy. Therefore, staying informed about future research and development is critical, because nuclear could be an energy game-changer.

Opinion: Why Nuclear Energy is Not the Solution

There is so much to love about nuclear energy. It is a zero-emissions energy source, producing none of the pollution or greenhouse gases that come from burning fossil fuels. And it is reliable, often considered the most reliable energy source.

Let’s not forget how cheap it is. To start, the cost of uranium is pretty low. Set-up costs of nuclear power plants are relatively high while running costs are low, and the average life of a nuclear reactor ranges from 40 to 60 years depending upon its usage. These factors combined make the cost of producing electricity very reasonable. Even if the cost of uranium rises, the increase in cost the of electricity will still remain minimal.

Nuclear energy can even help make the world a safer place by reducing nuclear arms. For the last two decades, old Soviet weapons material has supplied part of our nuclear fuel as a result of a deal to buy uranium from Soviet bomb stocks in 1996. Who knows how many light bulbs in America are now powered by former Soviet weapons.

But let’s remind ourselves why it would be a bad—terrible, abysmal maybe—idea to make nuclear energy the crux of the clean energy transition.

The clean energy transition is about more than just the environmental benefit. While we need to cut carbon emissions, renewable energies go beyond the environment; they spread the benefits of energy production across social spheres and income levels. The social benefits of renewables include but are not limited to: improved health, consumer choice, greater self-reliance, work opportunities and technological advances. A reliance on nuclear energy diminishes—if not eradicates—all of these benefits.

Nuclear energy’s history is marked by a series of disasters that resulted in severe detriments to human health. The Chernobyl disaster of 1986 in Ukraine is one of the most frightening, but well-known, examples of the catastrophic consequences inherent to nuclear energy. An estimated 220,000 people were displaced from their homes. The radioactive fallout made 4,440 square kilometers of agricultural land and 6,820 square kilometers of forests in Belarus and Ukraine useless. Don’t worry, it turns out animals like wolves and deer are thriving there without people these days.

Even if considered a form of clean energy, nuclear power produces serious radioactive waste, and disposing of it is one of the hot topics in the nuclear power debate. From uranium mining to the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel, radioactive waste is produced at every stage of the of the nuclear fuel cycle.

But here’s the real issue: nuclear energy is the strongest option for electric utilities to retain their monopolistic hold on the electric industry. Electric utilities have maintained an unchallenged hegemony for almost a century, and the renewable energy transition threatens this grip. In the perfect storm of policy and economic incentive, distributed renewable energy technologies could burn the utility business model to the ground.

This idea isn’t the domain of freethinker  hippies—it’s a concept the utilities have realized themselves. From the viewpoint of the utilities, every kilowatt-hour of small-scale solar looks like a kilowatt-hour of reduced demand for the utility’s product. And no business would enjoy a loss in demand, which equals a loss in revenue. So in an era proving to be pivotal for climate change and a transition to clean energy, utility giants know investing in nuclear energy production is their best shot at keeping this seat as the absolute ruler of the electricity world.

With this monopoly would remain the lack of consumer choice—a choice offered by distributed renewable energy.

But if this industry does not use nuclear energy production to stay rooted and the good ole boys’ club is challenged, consumers will have a choice of where their electricity comes from. With this choice comes competition, driving prices down and affordability up and allowing energy technology to further advance at a rapid pace for the betterment of society.

I saw firsthand how such energy democracy can lead to a thriving society in the small town of Schönau, Germany. Nestled in the Black Forest, this town of less than 2,500 people owns and operates its own grid, EWS Schönau, a highly successful German energy cooperative.

EWS was founded when Schönau’s electricity provider refused to phase out nuclear or move towards a cleaner energy future after the Chernobyl disaster of 1986. The citizens of Schönau realized the only way to change their energy landscape was to own the grid themselves. After years of negotiations, fundraising and deregulation, EWS was born. Today, Schönau is a net exporter of clean energy, serves 130,000 customers and has a supply of 95 percent renewable energy sources. EWS subsidizes renewable energy equipment units for its customers and provides workshops for those interested in learning more about advancing renewable energy.

You don’t have the be in Schönau very long to see the visible impacts of this energy landscape. Solar panels cover the town, even draping churches. Everyone here is reaping the benefits their energy democracy. The Black Forest and surrounding mountains create the perfect backdrop for this portrait of the clean energy future not dominated by monopolistic utilities.

Schönau has been a model for Germany, a global leader in the energy transition, and demonstrates that if nuclear energy is not the core of the clean energy transition, distributed renewable energy will be able to usher in the era of energy democracy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Opinions on Nuclear Energy

Nuclear energy has been quietly producing low-carbon electricity for numerous decades. However, to this day, it still suffers from a lack of information and from bad public opinion, especially after the 2011 Fukushima disaster. The Paris Conference last November sparked debate by citizens, scientists, and government policymakers on whether nuclear energy will be the solution for reducing our carbon dioxide emissions. I went out to ask people around campus for what they know and perceive about nuclear energy, as well as its relevance to our energy mix here in the 21st century, especially after the Paris Conference.

 

 

 

Chien Ming Lim, a senior Economics student from Malaysia, when asked about whether nuclear energy has a role in the low-carbon future (post-Paris conference) says, "It might be a solution, but I don't think that it'll ever happen. There are so many players in the game, and like, some countries don't even allow other countries to have nuclear weapons." When asked about whether nuclear will be a strongly considered option across the board "It might, but not in this current world state right now. Everyone's still pretty messed up, not even willing to work with each other."
Chien Ming Lim, a senior Economics student from Malaysia, when asked about whether nuclear energy has a role in the low-carbon future (post-Paris conference) says,
“It might be a solution, but I don’t think that it’ll ever happen. There are so many players in the game, and like, some countries don’t even allow other countries to have nuclear weapons.”
When asked about whether nuclear will be a strongly considered option across the board “It might, but not in this current world state right now. Everyone’s still pretty messed up, not even willing to work with each other.”

 

Katie Latham, when asked about nuclear energy, says that "it could be used for good or for bad." She mentions that she has a relative who works in nuclear energy. When asked about whether nuclear energy has a role to play in the low-carbon future, she says it could, but she prefers that wind be used the most. Katie says it all depends on each country's energy resources.
Katie Latham, from Charlotte, NC when asked about nuclear energy, says that “it could be used for good or for bad.” She mentions that she has a relative who works in nuclear energy. When asked about whether nuclear energy has a role to play in the low-carbon future, she says it could, but she prefers that wind be used the most. Katie says it all depends on each country’s energy resources.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

IMG_1192[1]
Emily Price from Lithia, Florida says that nuclear is controversial because the big concern is the toxicity of radioactive waste and where will it be placed. When asked about whether nuclear will be used in the future, she says “I’m not sure if it’s something that people will do in the near future, simply because we still have coal and hydroelectric, and other smaller, like wind and stuff like that to use. But, once we start running out of coal and oil, I think they’re going to realize that we definitely need other options, but I don’t think that they’re smart enough to realize that right now, or that they don’t want to take the risks that it’s so controversial right now.” Emily says that nuclear’s only going to be used if certain countries do not have adequate domestic fossil fuel resources, or do not want to be forced to import fossil fuels from other countries to protect their own interests.
IMG_1193[1]
Melissa Moss says the majority of what she knows and hears about nuclear energy is the controversy, the biggest being how the waste storage problem. She doubts that people will strongly consider nuclear in the near future, partially because they might think we don’t need it yet, and also because there is an scary unknown factor because people don’t know much about it. When asked about what would get governments and people to move away from fossil fuels and towards nuclear or other low-carbon energies, Melissa says, “I guess maybe prices, since it’s such higher up people that are the ones making the decisions. I feel like it would almost have to be, obviously it’s really bad but, something, like an event would have to happen, I guess like an environmental catastrophe to get everyone on board.” Emily suggests rising sea levels as a threat, and Melissa says that people’s safety would definitely be a major reason for change to occur.
 

 

 

 

Ahmed Jaraki, from South Carolina, says it's hard to form an opinion because nuclear energy is something that he lacks a lot of information on. He has concerns about nuclear waste and how the only final disposal method is burying the waste. When asked whether nuclear is going to be used in the future, he says "I don't so. I just feel like other countries will continue the oil and gas route." If governments were forced to take a low-carbon route, Ahmed says that it's hard to say whether nuclear will be chosen.
Ahmed Jaraki, from South Carolina, says it’s hard to form an opinion because nuclear energy is something that he lacks a lot of information on. He has concerns about nuclear waste and how the only final disposal method is burying the waste.
When asked whether nuclear is going to be used in the future, he says “I don’t think so. I just feel like other countries will continue the oil and gas route.” If governments were forced to take a low-carbon route, Ahmed says that it’s hard to say whether nuclear will be chosen.
The first question that Arial Everett of Greensboro, NC has is "Is it safe?" When asked about what would happen if a nuclear plant was planning to be built in Greensboro, she says that the reaction from the community "would depend on the amount of information we were given. If it was explained thoroughly, and we knew that the risk was very low, and it was not going to pollute anything, then it would be great. It would also depend on cost." Her opinion on how the world will transition between energy sources is that it would be a gradual change, that we would slowly introduce nuclear (and other low-carbon sources) and wean out fossil fuels. "Eventually, it becomes more cost effective and less harmful to the environment, and it would be the one that would be most dominant." She agrees that information (about nuclear) is key for implementation.
The first question that Arial Everett of Greensboro, NC has is “Is it safe?”
When asked about what would happen if a nuclear plant was planning to be built in Greensboro, she says that the reaction from the community “would depend on the amount of information we were given. If it was explained thoroughly, and we knew that the risk was very low, and it was not going to pollute anything, then it would be great.”
She agrees that information (about nuclear) is key for implementation.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

James Cooper of Chapel Hill, North Carolina said that nuclear is a safe technology, as long as it is well-regulated and kept up to standard. When asked whether countries will actually choose nuclear as an low-carbon energy option, James says that "it depends on the area you did it in, because as long as people are knowledgeable about the subject... it should be fine." He brings up that knowledge about the pros and cons of nuclear is key to whether it becomes a significant part of how we produce energy. "In certain, in like, probably rural areas, it's less likely that people will know the differences between nuclear, and wind, and solar... In more urban areas where people are being educated on the subject, it's definitely a better option to push it in those areas and then move onto rural."
James Cooper of Chapel Hill, North Carolina said that nuclear is a safe technology, as long as it is well-regulated and kept up to standard. When asked whether countries will actually choose nuclear as an low-carbon energy option, James says that “it depends on the area you did it in.”  He brings up that knowledge about the pros and cons of nuclear is key to whether it becomes a significant part of how we produce energy. “In certain, in like, probably rural areas, it’s less likely that people will know the differences between nuclear, and wind, and solar… In more urban areas where people are being educated on the subject, it’s definitely a better option to push it in those areas and then move onto rural.”

 

Rico Espinoza, from Fayetteville, North Carolina, says that nuclear energy's not something he hears about much. He had lots of questions about the safety of the technology, the environmental impact of nuclear vs fossil fuels, and about cost. When asked about whether he thinks nuclear energy is a good idea, Rico asks, "Who is benefiting from it, and who is paying for the costs?" He states, "It would need to benefit everyone", rather than, say, just the people running the plant. His main concerns was whether nuclear had a net benefit to the world, and whether utilizing this technology would create jobs when we shut down coal plants and its associated industries (coal mining, etc.)
Rico Espinoza, from Fayetteville, North Carolina, says that nuclear energy’s not something he hears about much. He had lots of questions about the safety of the technology, the environmental impact of nuclear vs fossil fuels, and about externalized costs.
When asked about whether he thinks nuclear energy is a good idea, Rico asks, “Who is benefiting from it, and who is paying for the costs?” He states, “It would need to benefit everyone”, rather than, say, just a few in the industry. His main concerns was whether nuclear had a net benefit to the world, and whether utilizing this technology would replace or increase jobs lost when we shut down coal plants and its associated industries (coal mining, etc.)