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Nuclear Power Essay

In recent years, the Earth has seen changes in its climate. The causes for this have been blamed on human behaviour as opposed to changes that have occurred naturally (http://www.bbc.co.uk/climate/evidence/). So the question ‘Is Nuclear Power the Answer for the Future?’ refers to the problem of climate change, and suggests that Nuclear Power could be the answer to this problem.

This is because scientists claim the emission of greenhouse gases, of which CO2 is the principal constituent, are the cause of climate change. Nowadays, our main source of energy comes from burning fossil fuels, which generate vast amounts of CO2. Should we decide that Nuclear Power would be a sustainable source of power, we might be able to slow down or possibly even stop climate change, because Nuclear Power does not generate any appreciable CO2.

Nuclear Power isn’t a brand new idea for fuelling the majority of the country. Half a century ago it was thought it would offer the solution to all our power needs, but later, once put into commission, shortcomings came to light. Eventually these drawbacks were considered so detrimental that the project was wound down. So, if it wasn’t successful back then, why should it be now? And why wasn’t it successful back then?

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Why hasn’t Nuclear Power been a hit in the past?

In the late 1950s, the idea of nuclear power became a popular one as many saw it as an easy way of producing masses of energy for the country at comparatively little expense. Nuclear fission required very little ‘fuel’, that is only a small amount of uranium oxide was required to release a vast amount of energy through the process of controlled atom splitting in nuclear reactors.

Nuclear power has been the most controversial of all energy sources. Public concerns about reactor safety and environmental issues were especially heightened by the 1979 accident at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania and the much more serious accident in 1986 at Chernobyl in Ukraine (http://www.answers.com/topic/list-of-countries-with-nuclear-weapons).

These two incidents played a major part in the shut down of many plants in Britain as the power was deemed unsafe. But now we have diagnosed a major climatic, non-nuclear problem on Earth, and have more advanced technology to make our reactor plants safer, more and more scientists are thinking we should go back to nuclear power as a way of saving our environment from the potentially devastating effects of climate change.

Pros

* Nuclear Power emits virtually no CO2 and wouldn’t add to the increasing problem of climate change.

* Nuclear Power produces far more energy per unit mass than fossil fuels.

* Some countries have benefited greatly from Nuclear Power (e.g. France) and claim it is sustainable.

* Nuclear Power is thought to be dangerous but recently safety has been greatly improved in the power plants and is set to get even more safe as time progresses and the technology accordingly evolves.

* There have been, and will continue to be, considerable developments in the technology making it safer and more efficient.

Cons

* Nuclear Power produces waste which, at this moment in time, has no means of safe disposal.

* Nuclear Power Stations produce radiation which if not carefully controlled represents a health risk

* To build a Nuclear Power Station would require a large input of CO2 emitting engineering work.

* There are fears that terrorists may be able to launch attacks against Nuclear Power stations with potentially devastating human consequences. Also, illicit trade in radioactive reactor products for nuclear or ‘dirty’ bombs could be a major threat to world stability.

* Meltdowns have occurred previously, e.g. Chernobyl, in which fission has run rampantly out of control with a disastrous aftermath.

First and foremost, nuclear power would address the problem of fuelling Britain. Currently the majority of Britain is being powered by fossil fuels which are causing global problems. Also fossil fuels are not sustainable and thus won’t last us much longer. Some scientists predict that at current rates we can only continue using fossil fuels for about 86 years. If we managed to make nuclear power our main energy source, we would certainly reduce the amount of CO2 we produce. This is a very positive point for nuclear power and remains a strong argument in the debate about our power difficulties.

Another strong positive point is that nuclear power produces a lot more energy per unit mass of fuel than do fossil fuels. Not only that, but the technology involved in nuclear power is advancing further and further. Very recently, for example, by reconfiguring nuclear fuel pellets into “doughnuts”, scientists from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have found a way to boost the amount of energy that nuclear reactors produce by 50% (Betts, 2007). The new design also helps to diminish the chance of meltdown by drastically reducing the temperature at which reactors must be operated, and additionally renders the spent fuel more proliferation-resistant.

As you can see, this article shows how technological advances are not only helping to make our energy more efficient and produce even more at less expense, but also shows how with advancing time, the safer our designs and operations will become. Consequently, any risks we still may have in dealing with nuclear power will be likely to be much reduced in the future.

Nuclear power has also been a successful way of powering other countries. Probably the best example is France. They make nearly all their electricity from nuclear power. They have made an electric train that can travel at 200 mph and thus can claim to be the only country that has intercity travel which is wholly carbon-free and non-polluting.

“These green lobbies mean well, but their good intentions are truly the road to a hell of a climate” (Lovelock, 2007). Here, James Lovelock, who is famous for his Gaia theory and an active supporter of green energy, says that nuclear power would benefit the Earth more than fossil fuels would. That such an eminent eco-pundit should recommend nuclear power as a rational source of green (i.e. non CO2 producing) energy shows just how much this alternative is now being considered favourably in the face of the imminence of potentially catastrophic global climate change from greenhouse gas generation.

Nuclear power has one key feature that is a big drawback, and that is that it produces waste, which at this moment in time, cannot be disposed of safely. The waste produced is highly toxic and radioactive. “Each 1000 megawatt nuclear power plant produces about 500 pounds of plutonium a year and about 30 metric tons of high-level radioactive waste.” http://skeptically.org/onwars/id10.html.

Although many say that nuclear power produces no CO2, they are referring to the fact that the nuclear process of electricity generation doesn’t produce carbon dioxide, however, the procedures leading up to the generation of electricity emit the gas. Thus, uranium mining is a very CO2 intensive operation and so wouldn’t be saving our planet to the extent that we thought it would. Also, if we are to fuel Britain with nuclear power, we will need to build many more nuclear power plants, and such building will also create CO2.

Many people say nuclear power is the only realistic alternative we have once fossil fuels run out, but how long would nuclear power last before we needed to decide upon another power source? In the past, breeder reactor programs have failed. Also uranium supplies are dwindling and won’t last forever. On this basis, it doesn’t look like it’s going to be a sustainable way of producing electricity.

Another problem associated with nuclear power, and one that is somewhat alarming, concerns terrorism. The waste produced by using nuclear power generation must be very closely watched, recorded and guarded. ‘Dirty Bombs’ or even nuclear devices could be created by terrorists should they be able to gain access to radioactive waste although some people including, Richard Black, a spokesman for the nuclear power industry say that recent advances mean that, “the recycling process won’t produce weapon-grade plutonium.” This still, however, leaves the threat of the ‘Dirty Bomb’ (i.e. a conventional explosive device surrounded by radioactive waste material).

Overall, Nuclear Power Stations would have to be very closely monitored if nuclear power was even to be considered as a possibility for our main source of power. If it is not properly controlled, not only will humans suffer the consequences, but the environment as a whole will be damaged as well.

Alternatives

Our main current power source has two major problems. Firstly, it is damaging the Earth and its climate, and secondly, fossil fuels aren’t sustainable and will soon run out. This means if we are to think of a solution, we need to as soon as possible. Many renewable sources of energy have been suggested as possible answers to the crisis (e.g. wind power, wave power, geothermal energy, hydroelectricity and tidal energy), but none of these produce nearly enough energy, even put together. They are, however, our most environmentally friendly sources of energy but they don’t produce energy on the substantial scale of Nuclear Power.

Now I have looked at each side of the ‘nuclear power debate’ I understand why the matter is so complex, and such a hard question to answer. I feel that Nuclear Power could be the ‘fuel of the future’ but we would have to go about it very carefully. Nuclear power stations would have to be carefully monitored regularly, especially the waste products so they don’t get into the wrong hands.

Also, the waste would have to be safely retained in a way which doesn’t harm the environment until we find a way to dispose of it safely. Finally, I feel that we should not only look to using nuclear power as our only form of power, but should maximize our use of renewable energy since we know that is our greenest energy option. I am aware that renewable sources don’t produce enough power to fuel Britain but they could certainly contribute, and all the energy we get from renewable sources, rather than nuclear power, would be helping our environment as much as possible.

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