University of Chicago
Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter
Nuclear Power: A Radioactive Waste of Time
For many years now, technology has strived to discover alternative energy sources that are cheap, efficient and not harmful to the environment. Nuclear power is one of the alternative energy sources that technology has discovered. There are many views on whether or not it meets the aforementioned criteria, but the major concern when it comes to nuclear power is the safety issue. Is nuclear power safe? There is sufficient evidence to prove that it is very unsafe, including past nuclear power related catastrophes, the by-product of nuclear power, and the fact that nuclear power plants are a vulnerable target for terrorists.
Firstly, the amount at risk when it comes to nuclear power is overwhelming, accidental meltdowns have the ability to cause instant death to many people, and have a life time effect on many more. On April 26th, 1986, an accident happened at the Chernobyl nuclear plant in Ukraine, and it caused a meltdown in the reactor. The results were catastrophic; the meltdown released more radioactivity than the atomic bombs that dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. During the disaster, 56 people died and about 600,000 people were exposed to high levels of radiation. The radiation spread to places as far as Scotland. _Refer to figure 1._
There are arguments that the Chernobyl meltdown was a result of old technology and mismanagement. Yet, since Chernobyl, according to the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission there have been nearly 200 near misses in the US in which the fuel rods at the core of reactor came close to melting down. Nuclear power gambles with our lives, our health and the environment, an accident at work for someone can end the life of many.
The nuclear waste that comes with nuclear energy is a major concern for the environment. On average, a uranium ore contains only 0.1% uranium. The majority of the materials extracted during uranium ore mining is waste containing other hazardous radioactive and toxic substances. Most nuclear reactors require one specific form of uranium, uranium-235 (U-235). This form represents only 0.7% of natural uranium. To increase the concentration of U-235, the uranium extracted from ore goes through an enrichment process, resulting in a small quantity of usable ‘enriched’ uranium and huge volumes of waste. Enriched uranium is then put into fuel rods and transported to nuclear reactors where electricity is generated. Nuclear power plant operation transforms uranium fuel into a rich, highly-toxic and dangerous mixture of radioactive elements, such as plutonium.
Plutonium is the manmade element used in nuclear bombs, only a small amount is needed to bring about a devastating outcome; this deadly mixture remains dangerous for about 240,000 years. Furthermore, the radioactive waste produced emits large amounts of hazardous radiation. Even a couple of minutes of exposure to high-level waste can easily result in fatal doses of radiation. Radioactive waste therefore needs to be reliably stored for 240,000 years, one should take into account that humans have been on earth for only 200,000 years!
Another problem is that there is no reliable spot to store away this waste for such a long period of time. Reprocessing of nuclear waste was supposed to be a solution to the problem; however, the reprocessing plants use a process that actually leads to more hazardous waste flows. Not only is there the long term radioactive waste to worry about, but also the depleted uranium (DU). Currently there is about 1.2 million tonnes of depleted uranium stored without any foreseen use in the future. _Refer to figure 2._
The American and British governments used DU as armour for tanks and piercing tips for munitions in the Gulf War, veterans of this war have had health problems due to their exposure to DU. Even their children have suffered from their exposure to DU. Hence the process that it takes to produce nuclear power and all the waste that comes as a by-product is a massive and dangerous waste of time. The radioactive waste can be harmful to our health and our environment, and without a safe and reliable storage method we should realize the more nuclear power we process the larger the problem of nuclear waste.
The nuclear industry may argue that nuclear power is the solution to global warming and the climate crisis by promoting nuclear power as a “low carbon” solution. Today’s world is hooked on coal, oil and gas; burning these fossil fuels releases carbon dioxide, the main cause of global warming and climate change. Furthermore, oil and gas are finite, so a long term solution to the problem is desperately needed. However, nuclear power is not the answer, as nuclear power can only provide electricity; it cannot meet our transport or heating energy needs. Nuclear power generates around 15% of the Earth’s electricity, but only 6.5% of the world’s total energy supply. _Refer to figure 3._
Additionally, according to the Energy Scenario by the International Energy Agency, even if existing world nuclear power capacity could be quadrupled by 2050, its share of world energy consumption would still be below 10%. This would reduce carbon dioxide emissions by less than 4%. Hence nuclear power clearly isn’t a solution to global warming.
Nuclear power increases the risk of nuclear weapons potential of spreading to other countries, of terrorists gaining material to make nuclear bombs and of potential terrorist attacks on nuclear facilities or transports. Reactors have not been built to withstand the impact of a large aircraft; nuclear waste transports are even more vulnerable to terrorists. A study by Dr. Edwin Lyman of the Union of Concerned Scientists finds that a potential terrorist attack on the Indian Point nuclear plant in the US could lead to 518,000 long-term deaths from cancer and as many as 44,000 near-term deaths from acute radiation poisoning. These numbers are from a potential terrorist attack on one plant, over half a million people will be killed because of nuclear power.
It is blatant that nuclear power is unsafe, even if a reactor core doesn’t meltdown accidentally; a terrorist could cause the same results that a regular meltdown would. Not to mention the black market that has developed to nuclear materials. A typical power plant produces enough plutonium annually for 10-15 crude nuclear bombs. Experiments conducted by the government of the United States have shown that several nuclear weapons can be built in a matter of weeks using ordinary spent fuel from light water reactors (the most common type of reactors). Another study by the US government revealed that a country with only a minimal industrial base could secretly and quickly construct a small plant just 40 metres long, capable of extracting about a bomb’s worth of plutonium every day. Hence nuclear power is unsafe and can lead to massive destruction at the hands of terrorists.
In conclusion, nuclear power is an unsafe for many reasons. Firstly, there have been nuclear meltdowns in the past which yielded devastating results, and many more close calls. Secondly, there is no solution for radioactive waste which is harmful to us and our environment. Also, nuclear power doesn’t help our environment through its low carbon solution. Lastly, nuclear power plants are vulnerable to terrorist attacks, which puts the safety of many at risk. Hence, nuclear power is unsafe!
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This contamination will have an effect on several generations to come.
The process in which nuclear power is generated, steps 1-5.
Nuclear Power only generates electricity, hence why it can’t be a solution to climate change.