Image Credit: EcoTheo Review
Renewable energy? Sure! Coal? Boo. Nuclear energy? Hmm,uncertain. Few areas in energy production are as controversial and as debated as nuclear energy. Admittedly, it is hard to think of nuclear energy without bringing into mind nuclear plant accidents such as Chernobyl and Fukushima. Those accidents were responsible for the displacement of thousands of people from the affected areas, for the release of radiation in the environment which will remain in the affected areas for years, and for the destruction of habitat.
Perception of nuclear energy, thus, is generally negative. However, this might not be a fair criticism of nuclear energy which has been proven to be a safe and reliable way of producing electricity and it has been suggested that governments should invest more in nuclear energy, whereas the public should clear any preconceptions it has towards nuclear power.
It is worth noting that in over 17,000 cumulative reactor-years of commercial nuclear energy operation in over 30 countries there have only been three major accidents - Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima, which are largely responsible for the public’s negative stance towards nuclear energy. However, it has been argued that these accidents proved the relative safety, and not the relative danger, of nuclear power plants.
With about 440 nuclear reactors in the world, just one accident, in Chernobyl, has been described by the International Atomic Energy Agency as a ‘major accident’. Setting Chernobyl aside, where 30 people died, no nuclear worker or member of the general public has died as a result of direct radiation exposure from a commercial nuclear reactor incident. Fear against radiation from nuclear power plants is large, however it is largely unjustified. As a matter of fact, the amount of radiation from nuclear power that one is exposed, on a yearly basis, is 200 times less than radiation they are exposed to from flying, while nuclear power plants release 100 times less radioactivity than coal-fired power plants.
Furthermore, nuclear energy is not as harmful to the environment as generally thought. Nuclear reactors do not emit greenhouse gases and their emissions are comparable to renewable forms of energy, such as solar and wind. They also require less land to operate when compared to other energy producing facilities.
Certainly, there is no industry which is accident-free. Accidents in the aviation industry and the oil and gas industries happen frequently,but this is seen as an opportunity to improve those industries and not shut them down, in this way making them safer and more effective. It is regarded that the risks associated with keeping those industries in the market are an acceptable trade-off for our using their services and products. Maintenance of those industries, of course, must happen without benefiting over the destruction of the environment and the aforementioned industries should be pushed to operate in a sustainable manner.
Debunking the myths about nuclear power does not mean that nuclear power is an absolutely environmentally friendly way of producing electricity. One of the greatest problems concerning nuclear power is nuclear waste. There is currently no way of dealing with nuclear waste in a way which is safe and could ensure that no accidents could happen or that it will not fall into the wrong hands and used for malign purposes. Nuclear power plants around the world produce about 2200 tons of nuclear waste yearly and are stored for years until their radioactivity decreases naturally to safe levels.
However, it is the case that every waste dump causes radiation leaking into the environment and, as nuclear plants are in many areas unable to store radioactive waste onsite, it has to be transported, thereby increasing the possibility of accidents.
Besides environmental concerns regarding the operation of nuclear power plants, another significant barrier that governments around the world face when considering the possibility of opening and operating a nuclear power plant is their cost. In the UK, plans to build a nuclear power plant in Somerset face strong opposition since its estimated lifetime costs were calculated to £37 billion.
Faced with low oil prices, other countries have been forced to stop considering or close their nuclear power plants. Several nuclear power plants in the US were forced to close due to their inability to compete with low gas prices. Germany has announced that it will shut down all its nuclear plants by 2022, whereas, back in 2011, 94% of Italians voted in a referendum against the operation of nuclear power plants on Italian territory.
Nevertheless, governments and people should let aside many of their preconceptions about nuclear energy and consider it as a safe and reliable way of producing electricity. However, this does not mean that nuclear energy is the only way forward or that it is a problem-free solution to global warming.