Nuclear energy or nuclear power primarily involves the generation of electricity based on the use of nuclear reaction and the corresponding release of nuclear energy to produce a necessary amount of heat needed to drive steam turbines.
Because of its benefits and advantages, nuclear power has been positioned as a feasible alternative source of energy. However, it has its limitations and drawbacks or disadvantages. This article explores the pros and cons of nuclear power, specifically by discussing the debate or the arguments and counterarguments surrounding its promotion and proliferation.
Pros: The Benefits, Potentials and Promises, and Advantages of Nuclear Power
1. A Low-Carbon Source of Energy for Reducing Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Promoting Health
One of the remarkable advantages of nuclear power is its supposed role in curbing global warming and reducing the risks associated with climate change. The review article of Richard Rhodes noted that renewable sources of energy alone are not enough to reduce greenhouse gas emissions alone. Widespread investments in the development of nuclear power facilities and related technologies would fast track global emission targets.
Proponents of nuclear power have also raised concerns over the health risks associated with fossil fuel dependent. According to the World Health Organization, low-income to middle-income countries in the Southeast Asia and West-Pacific regions usually suffer from health problems due to air pollution. Transportation and household cooking, which are both dependent on fossil fuels, account remain the primary sources of outdoor and indoor air pollutants. Promoting nuclear power can help support the application of green and emission-free technologies to include the use of electric vehicles and electric stovetops.
However, the United States Energy Information Administration reminded that mining and refining uranium ore, and producing a nuclear fuel require large amounts of energy. It added that the construction of the entire nuclear power plant also involve the use of large amounts of metal and concrete. These activities correspond to large energy consumptions that might require dependence on other sources of energy such as fossil fuels. In other words, nuclear power can indirectly contributes to carbon emission, especially if it is supplemented by existing fossil fuel infrastructures.
Nuclear power is still a low-carbon source of energy. Citing data from the WHO, the World Nuclear Association mentioned that this alternative energy source emits the lowest amount of carbon equivalent per unit of energy produced, especially when taking into consideration whole-cycle emissions. A study from The Brooking Institution also concluded that it remains the most cost-effective low-carbon technology. Furthermore, the review article of Rhodes mentioned that electricity generation through nuclear power was instrumental in preventing 1.4 million emission-related deaths from 1971 to 2009.
2. More Energy Efficient than Fossil Fuels and Better Reliability than Wind and Solar Power
Another benefit of nuclear power over fossil fuels is a better degree of energy efficiency relative to the energy density of the input. A single kilogram of uranium-235 can produce as much energy as 1.5 million kilogram or 1500 tons of coal. Note that uranium-235 has an energy density of 24.5 million kWh/g. On the other hand, the butane and propane variants of liquefied petroleum gas have an energy density of around 13.8 kWh/kg while gasoline and diesel fuel have an energy density of approximately 13 kWh/kg.
Furthermore, when compared to some renewable sources of energy, nuclear power is more reliable because it can continuously generate electricity with less intermission. In other words, it produces electricity whenever required. Remember that one of the notable drawbacks of wind power and solar power, including photovoltaic solar power and concentrated solar power, is intermittency. To be specific, the operation these alternative sources of energy is heavily dependent on weather conditions, thus they cannot produce electricity on demand and have to rely on storage technologies.
The World Nuclear Association maintains that the role of renewable energy sources in meeting current and future electricity demand will always be limited due to their intermittent availability and diffuse nature. However, the most recent findings from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change or IPCC said that with enough support from governments, renewable energy supply could account for almost 80 percent of energy supply within 40 years.
But nuclear power remains efficient when factoring in energy reliability alongside externalities from emission. Results of an energy and emission cost analysis published by The Brookings Institution that revealed that the net benefits stemming from new nuclear power plants, natural gas facilities, and hydropower far outweigh the net benefits of new wind and solar power installations and facilities constructions. Remember that this study also noted that nuclear power remains the most cost-effective low-carbon technology.
3. Takes into Consideration all the Advantages of Nuclear Fission and Fission Reactors
The current technology for generating electricity via nuclear power centers on nuclear fission or more specifically, the processing of uranium or other relevant elements as the primary fuel of fission-based nuclear reaction. According to the World Nuclear Association, uranium is an abundant source of energy that occurs in concentrations of two to four parts per million in most rocks. It is as abundant as tin, tungsten, and molybdenum.
While some analysts have subjected uranium to the same Hubert Peak Theory as other nonrenewable sources of energy such as oil and natural gas, an efficient nuclear fuel cycle is possible through the use of appropriate technologies. For example, the use of nuclear reprocessing technology allows the separation and recovery of fissionable plutonium from spent nuclear fuel and the reprocessing of uranium to a viable nuclear fuel.
A study by H. Douglas Lightfoot also argued that nuclear fission energy is inexhaustible as those energies coming from renewable sources such as hydropower, wind power, and solar power. They noted that fast reactors or breeder reactors are 100 times more efficient than thermal reactors because they can extract almost all energy contained in a nuclear fuel while generating more fissile material than it consumes. The same study also mentioned that uranium could be economically obtained from phosphate deposits and seawater and if supplies run low, nuclear reactors can still use other types of nuclear fuel processed from thorium.
However, the applications of nuclear reprocessing and breeding reactor are still limited for the simplest reason that using uranium alone remains more economical because of its abundance. Once uranium availability drops down and prices go up due to different factors of supply shift, nuclear reprocessing and breeder reactor technologies can be explored and developed, as well as applied further as part of an energy security contingency.
4. A Versatile Alternative Source of Energy Due to Other Non-Electric Industrial Applications
The applications of nuclear power can go beyond the generation of electricity. The International Atomic Energy Agency or IAEA has promoted the concept of cogeneration in which nuclear power plants are used as facilities for generating electricity and supporting other non-electric industrial applications. Cogeneration essentially combines the production of usable electricity and heat into a single process. Because nuclear reactors generate an excessive amount of heat, this excess can be used in heat-intensive applications.
Seawater desalination is a notable example of cogeneration. Note that desalination is an energy-intensive process that requires large amounts of heat to effectively extract salt and other mineral components from saline water. Using fossil fuels or renewable energy sources to desalinate seawater is uneconomical and counterproductive.
Nonetheless, because nuclear power generates excessive amounts of heat, this excess can be used in seawater desalination. Japan, India, and Kazakhstan have demonstrated the economic feasibility of using their nuclear power plants as facilities for both generating electricity and desalinating seawater. When applied extensively across the world, the IAEA mentioned that the dual-purpose of nuclear power could promote energy security and meet the growing demand for drinking water around the world, especially in arid and semi-arid regions that fact water shortage.
Aside from desalination, the excess heat generated by nuclear reactors can also be used for other industrial applications such as glass manufacturing, cement manufacturing, blast furnace steelmaking, direct iron production, and hydrogen production, among others. The same excess heat can also be used in district heating.
The IAEA has enumerated the different benefits of cogeneration. These include the effective and efficient use of energy, including electricity by repurposing the economical use of excess heat energy, positive environmental impacts due to reduced greenhouse gas emissions from reduced dependence on fossil fuels, and economic advantages such as savings from electricity bills and hedges or contingency against unstable energy costs.
Cons: The Limitations, Criticisms, and Drawbacks or Disadvantages of Nuclear Power
1. Concerns Over Environmental and Overall Community Safety Due to the Possible Radiation Leakages
The Chernobyl nuclear accident of 1986 in the Ukrainian region of the former Soviet Union and the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster of 2011 in Japan are some of the notable examples of accidents that serve as a major basis for the criticisms and purported disadvantages of nuclear power. Take note that these two incidents involved radioactive contamination that resulted in immediate negative economic impacts from costs associated with containment and damages to properties, as well as environmental and public health offshoots.
Physician and anti-nuclear advocate Helen Mary Caldicott described nuclear power as a merely complicated and dangerous way of boiling water. Her book “Nuclear Power Is Not The Answer To Global Warming Or Anything Else” discussed several drawbacks of this alternative source of energy. Such include the possibility of nuclear meltdowns from human-induced failures, natural calamities, and terrorist attacks; and the health and environmental consequences of radiation contamination.
The Chernobyl disaster currently remains as the worst nuclear power accident in history. The report “Environmental Consequences of the Chernobyl Accident and their Remediation: Twenty Years of Experience” prepared and published by IAEA concluded that the disaster resulted in a large regional release of radionuclides into the atmosphere and subsequent radioactive contamination of the environment that affected not only Ukraine but also other regions in Europe to include the Russian Federation and Belarus, among others. The radioactive contamination disturbed the urban environment, agriculture, the aquatic environment, and the land flora and fauna of the affected areas.
Incidents like the one involving the Chernobyl disaster remain a serious source of concern over the proliferation of nuclear power. The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster also raised a specific concern over the resilience of nuclear power plants against unforeseen or unmanageable incidents involving natural disasters. Note that this disaster was primarily caused by an earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan on 11 March 2011.
2. Issues Regarding the Handling of Radioactive Waste and the Decommissioning of Nuclear Reactors
Nuclear power generates radioactive wastes, particularly alpha-emitting wastes containing radium and its decay products from the extraction of uranium, depleted uranium from uranium enrichment, and beta-emitting and gamma-emitting wastes from spent nuclear fuels. Note that radioactive wastes also contaminate the physical objects used alongside nuclear-related activities. Examples of these are the tools, protective clothing, and wiping cloths used in nuclear fuel processing facilities and nuclear power plants.
The U.S. Energy Information Administration noted that most wastes from nuclear power usually remain radioactive for hundreds to thousands of years. Hence, their proper handling, transportation, storage, and disposal are critical to averting risks to public health and the environment. Even physical objects with low-level radiation contamination require stringent after-use processing. Despite the existence of guidelines based on government regulations, as well as the absence of disastrous incidents related to the handling of radioactive wastes, there are still concerns due to the possibility of human-induced errors, natural events, and terrorist-caused accidents.
Decommissioning of nuclear facilities is another major concern. Nuclear power plants, reactors, isotopes production or enrichment facilities, and nuclear fuel mines require the proper observance of strict dismantling processes to ensure that they no pose threats regarding radiation exposure and contamination. Once decommissioned, a particular facility achieves a point in which there is no need for employing measures aimed at radiation protection.
An analysis by electrical and electronics engineering professor Derek Abbott specifically mentioned that a nuclear power plant needs to be decommissioned after 40 to 60 years of operation. Considering that these facilities need to be replaced every 50 years on average, then one facility need to be built and another decommissioned somewhere in the world to main a stable number of 15000 operational facilities. Abbott also noted that it takes six to twelve years to build a single facility and maximum of 20 years to decommission one. Maintaining a stable number of operational nuclear power plants would be unrealistic due to the construction-decommission rate.
3. The Drawbacks of Nuclear Fission and the Challenges in Developing and Implementing Nuclear Fusion
Nuclear fission remains the most economical way of generating electricity through nuclear power. Remember that uranium, as well as other heavy metals such as thorium and plutonium are the primary source materials for producing nuclear fuel for fission-based nuclear reactors. However, another disadvantage of nuclear power comes from the drawbacks of fission reactors. These include concerns over radiation contamination due to meltdowns, safety issues involved in the handling of radioactive waste, and the decommissioning of the entire and relevant nuclear facilities, as well as security concerns due to the possible shortage and price shock involving the supply of nuclear fuels.
The proposed alternative to nuclear fission is nuclear fusion. It provides several theoretical advantages to include the use of a relatively more abundant sources of nuclear fuel, particularly hydrogen and its deuterium and tritium isotopes. In addition, fusion produces byproducts that do not carry the same level of health and environmental risks associated with the highly radioactive byproducts of nuclear fission. Meltdowns and runaway reactions are also unlikely because nuclear fusion is not self-sustaining. A fusion reactor has an easier risk management approach because it does not produce a chain reaction unlike nuclear fission.
However, commercializing nuclear fusion for electricity generation remains impossible. Although there are facilities and reactors designed for nuclear fusion, such as the ITER megaproject, they remain experimental. The primary challenge centers on the fact that initiating a fusion reaction requires expending large amounts of energy. In other words, nuclear power based on nuclear fusion remains uneconomical because it consumes more energy than it produces.
4. Dual-Use Dilemma Leading to Concerns Over the Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons from Nuclear Power
Another criticism against nuclear power or nuclear energy involves concerns over the proliferation of nuclear weapons, especially among countries with established civil nuclear power capabilities. Accordingly, the nuclear fuel cycle creates a dual-use dilemma in which the radioactive byproducts of nuclear fission from reactors can be turned into nuclear bombs.
Charles D. Ferguson, a scientific consultant for nonproliferation studies, explained that the technologies for producing nuclear fuels for nuclear reactors and electricity generation could also be used to produce explosive materials for nuclear bombs. To be specific, there are two pathways available for making these materials: the uranium pathway and the plutonium pathway. Essentially, these pathways serve as specific processes for enriching or reprocessing uranium or plutonium for electricity generation purposes and producing weapons-grade materials.
However, an earlier exploratory article by nuclear physicist William C. Sailor argued that there is no direct link between the use of nuclear power and the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Still, he mentioned that several countries such as India, Israel, and Pakistan have banked on their civil nuclear programs to cover their military nuclear programs that include buying items, including uranium and plutonium, from the international market and enrichment and reprocessing of nuclear fuel.
FURTHER READINGS AND REFERENCES
- Abbott, D. 2011. “Is Nuclear Power Globally Scalable?” Proceedings of the IEEE. 99(10): 1611-1617. DOI: 10.1109/JPROC.2011.2161806
- Caldicott, H. 2006. Nuclear Power Is Not The Answer To Global Warming And Anything Else. New York: The New York Press
- Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. 2011. IPCC Special Report on Renewable Energy Sources and Climate Change Mitigation. Prepared by Working Group III of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge and New York
- Ferguson, C. 2007, December 1. “Proliferation Risks of Nuclear Power Programs.” Nuclear Threat Initiative. Retrieved online
- Frank, Jr., C. R. 2014. The Net Benefits of Low and No-Carbon Electricity Technologies. Global Economy & Development, Working Paper No. 73. MA: The Brookings Institution. ISSN: 1939-9383. PDF
- International Atomic Energy Agency. 2006. Environmental Consequences of the Chernobyl Accident and their Remediation: Twenty Years of Experience – Report of the Chernobyl Forum Expert Group ‘Environment’. Vienna: International Atomic Energy Agency
- Krikorian, S. 2018. “Nuclear Power Beyond Electricity: Towards Greater Efficiency in Energy Production and Water Management.” International Atomic Energy Agency. Retrieved online
- Lightfoot, H. D., Manheimer, W., Meneley, D. A., Pendergast, N. and Stanford, G. S. 2006. “Nuclear Fission is Inexhaustible.” 2006 IEEE EIC Climate Change Conference. DOI: 10.1109/EICCCC.2006.277268
- Rhodes, R. 2017. “Carbon Emissions: More Nuclear Power Can Speed C02 Cuts.” Nature. 548(281). DOI: 10.1038/548281d
- Sailor, W. 2001. “How To Think About Proliferation and Nuclear Power.” Forum on Physics and Society of the American Physical Society. American Physical Society. Retrieved online
- U.S. Energy Information Administration. “Nuclear Power and the Environment.” Nuclear Explained. U.S. Energy Information Administration. Retrieved online
- World Nuclear Association. 2012. “Uranium, Electricity, and Climate Change.” Information Library. World Nuclear Association. Retrieved online
- World Nuclear Association. 2017. “What Is Uranium? How Does It Work?” Information Library. World Nuclear Association. Retrieved online
- World Nuclear Association. 2017. “World Energy Needs and Nuclear Power.” Information Library. World Nuclear Association. Retrieved online