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Weighing the Pros and Cons of Nuclear Power Plants

written by: ciel s cantoria•edited by: Sarah Malburg•updated: 5/4/2011

Should decisions about nuclear power plants be based on its pros and cons? The most that they could provide are renewable sources of energy, which can be derived from other alternative sources. The worst it can do is bring physical & economic destruction & long-term devastation to a nation.

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    Current Deliberations Over the Nuclear Power Plants

    800px-Indian Point crop 

    Now, more than ever, the safety of nuclear power plants is receiving increased attention and deliberations. The recent nuclear accident in Fukushima, Japan, as an offshoot of the magnitude-nine (9) earthquake and 15-meter wavelength tsunami that hit Japan in a single event last March, 2011, has magnified the issue, thus spurring more debates.

    The incident occurred at a time when the U.S. Congress is still in the process of deliberating on the DOE’s (Department of Energy), proposal to increase the 2011 budget allocations for nuclear plant projects , from its current $ 18.5 billion to $ 54.5 billion.

    Members of the House Committee have expressed concerns that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has overlooked the possibility of similar catastrophes like the combined tsunami-earthquake event that was experienced by Japan. In one of its hearings, the NRC chairman admitted that the approved designs took into considerations only the ground-shaking motions as an occurrence. They did not include measures against earthquakes at magnitude 9 or even a tsunami-earthquale as likely events.

    Japan is highly recognized for its advanced technology that is even regarded as more sophisticated compared to other countries. As an earthquake–prone region, their designs have taken into consideration ground movements; but not the near-simultaneous occurrence of an earthquake and a tsunami. Said incident had led to the crippling of structural requirements and components like electric power, back-up diesel generators and oil storage tanks. Albeit designed for a tsunami catastrophe, the most that the Fukushima nuclear plant was prepared against was at six-meter wavelengths and not the 15-meter wavelengths that actually took place.

    The pros and cons of nuclear power plants are essential points to consider, but some house representatives would prefer to compare these aspects against other renewable sources of energy like water, solar and wind elements.

    Image Credit: Indian Point nuclear reactor, seen from across the Hudson River on US 9W by Daniel Case lifted from http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Indian_Point_crop.jpg

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    The Pros of Nuclear Energy Derived from Power Plants

    309px-Nuclear fission.svg 

    1. Abundant supply of electrical energy at lower costs - Uranium instead of oil will be used to produce electrical energy. It is said that a ton of uranium can release substantial amounts of energy once it undergoes the process of nuclear fission. By nuclear fission, the mere splitting of atomic nuclei can go into a series of chain reactions that can produce great amounts of energy to be converted into electricity.

    As opposed to coal heated power plants that require millions of tons of coal or gas-fired plants using numerous barrels of high priced oil, the same amount of energy is produced by one ton of uranium.

    2. Low carbon emission - Since there is no fuel-burning process involved, the amount of carbon emission released from nuclear power plants is less than a hundredth of the carbon emissions released by the fuel burning power plants.

    3. Nuclear wastes can be contained and controlled - Said wastes are unlike carbon and other greenhouse gas emissions that are released in the atmosphere beyond human control and become a semi-permanent composition of the atmospheric layers. As we all know, global warming condition has been largely aggravated by carbon dioxide emissions.

    4. Nuclear fuel is compact and can be easily transported- The main component of a nuclear reactor is called the “core", which contains all the nuclear fuel that can generate heat. Each “core" contains hundreds of thousands of fuel pins that typically contain uranium oxide. As such, handling and transport require the use of fewer resources.

    5. Nuclear technology entails low cost - The nuclear technology of fission is a natural phenomenon that does not require further development or research just to produce energy that can be converted into electricity. The splitting of a large nucleus brings about a chain reaction of splitting other nuclei and releasing shooting neutrons that can continuously split more atomic nuclei, thus creating energy in the process.

    Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Fastfission

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    In weighing the pros and cons of nuclear power the downsides have presented a lopsided view of the overall viability of investing more than what is necessary.. Consider the fact that the disposal of spent nuclear fuel wastes are yet unresolved, inasmuch as radioactive wastes are said to be potent up to a thousand years. On the other hand, uranium as source of nuclear fuel are expected to last for an estimated number of 30 to 60 years. So where does that leave the future generations who stand to inherit only the SNFs and the dried-up resources?
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    The Cons of Nuclear Power Plants

    614px-Fukushima I nuclear accidents diagram.svg 

    Nuclear accidents or disasters - These have happened and taken place in different occasions and locations on a global scale. Aside from the recent Fukushima explosion in Japan, two of the most widely publicized nuclear accidents are the Three Mile Island reactor 2 (US) and the Chernobyl reactor 4 (Russia).

    Japan, has had leakages and accidents, which include the partial meltdown of uranium core in Ottawa (1952) and the Tokaimura incident (1999).

    France, experienced its first major nuclear disaster in 1992, while the most recent was the plant malfunction in July 2008. It caused the overflow of 30,000 liters of uranium enriched solution into two of France’s rivers..

    The possible proliferation of nuclear weapons - The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty provides that every country has a right to undertake nuclear development for peaceful purposes. Yet many nations have taken its context as all-encompassing, as to include the development of nuclear weapons, as counter-reactions against threats posed by other world powers. India feels threatened by Pakistan, while North Korea feels the same way about South Korea and so the argument goes on. Even developing countries will consider nuclear weapons to protect itself from possible threats of invasion.

    Image Credit: Fukushima I nuclear accidents diagram by Asahi Shimbun Newspaper, BBC News Website lifted from http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Fukushima_I_nuclear_accidents_diagram.svg

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    Building and setting up of nuclear power plants are cost intensive. Based on historical records, the actual costs incurred in building power plants have always exceeded the initial estimates. The May 2008 report released by the US Congressional Budget Office disclosed that the actual costs incurred to build 75 existing nuclear power plants reached $144.6 billion dollars. This exceeded the estimated average cost of $45.2 billion. Said expenditures still do not include the expenses for waste storage and disposal.

    Nuclear waste disposal and storage solutions still have to be perfected. Spent Nuclear Fuel or SNF are stored in dry-cask storages in steel-lined silos with no definite destinations for its final disposition. SNF disposal is still considered unresolved based on the following reasons::

    • There are no deep geologic disposal repository existing, whether locally or abroad.
    • Interim or temporary storage ranges from 5 to 100 years in storage condition until they attain the proper decay period. The latter condition is required before the SNFs are transferred to a deep geologic disposal repository.
    • SNFs are still considered as radioactive for a few thousand years.

    Nuclear power plants and SNF storage silos are possible targets of terrorist attacks. Similar attacks like those launched by the 9/11 terrorists are likely possibilities which cannot be dismissed.

    Uranium resources are expected to last for about 30 to 60 years at the most. Uranium is said to be scarce and the current trend in uranium prices is on a continuous rise. In March 2006, prices of uranium rose from $10 per pound to $38 per pound in a span of three years. At present, uranium costs $ 50.50 from 2010's $40.50 per pound. After 30 -60 years of exhausting the present sources of uranium, future generations will end-up with dried-up resources

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    Summary:

    Why weigh the pros and cons of nuclear power plants if the main issue to consider is the overall safety not only of a community but of the nation? The recent nuclear accident in Japan and its aftermath, manifest that technological advancements cannot compete with the forces of nature should it decide to unleash its full power.

    Ponder on the thought that the future generations will be tasked to handle much of the SNF that the country will be producing. In the same way that the radioactive elements known as radon, produced by those who started nuclear power processing decades ago, still threaten homes. Radon emissions coming from radioactive soils, have been known to enter through the walls.This, plus the millions of tons of spent nuclear fuels stored in steel-lined silos, will be among their legacies.

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    References:

    • Library ThinkQuest.org : Nuclear Physics lifted from http://library.thinkquest.org/3471/nuclear_physics.html
    • Times for Change.org : "Pros and Cons of Nuclear Power" lifted from http://timeforchange.org/pros-and-cons-of-nuclear-power-and-sustainability
    • NYTimes.com : Environment - Published: March 16, 2011 lifted from http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/17/science/earth/17nrc.html?_r=1

Important Facts About US Nuclear Power Plants

About to enter a new phase in clean energy, US nuclear power plants will replace sources that rely on fossil fuel burning. Although the promise of low carbon emissions and economic growth are attractive, we should also learn more about the downsides of this major decision as well.
  1. Weighing the Pros and Cons of Nuclear Power Plants
  2. Nuclear Power Plant Accidents and Their Damaging Effects