In 1953, nuclear energy was introduced into America as a cheap and
efficient energy source, favoured in place of increasingly scarce fossil fuels
which caused air pollution. Its initial use was welcomed by the general public,
as it was hoped to lower the price of electricity, and utilise nuclear power for
it’s potential as a resource, not a weapon. However, as people became aware of
the long term dangers involved in storing nuclear waste, it’s use was criticised.
Two accidents, at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, demonstrated to the world
the enormous risks involved in producing nuclear power.
Nuclear power provides 17% of the world’s electricity but coal is the
main source, making up 39%. However, fossil fuels such as coal, require greater
quantities to produce the equivalent amount of electricity produced from Uranium.
The use of nuclear power opposed to burning fossil fuels has reduced carbon
dioxide emissions by 2 billion tonnes per year, minimising the global warming
effect on the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide is responsible for half of man made
gases contributing to the Greenhouse Effect, and has sparked action from the UN
Intergovernment Panel on Climate Change. Their consensus is a concern for the
environment in the next century if fossil fuels continue to be used, even at
present global levels.The Panel claims that for carbon dioxide to be
stabilised to safe levels, a 50-80% reduction in all emissions would be required.
The United Nations has predicted a world population growth from 5.5
billion to 8.5 billion by the year 2025, meaning demand for energy will increase.
Nuclear power is the only practical source, in consideration for the
environment, cost and efficiency. Coal-fired generation of electricity would
increase carbon dioxide emissions, and renewable sources such as solar and hydro,
are not suitable for large scale power generation.
Nuclear power is not without its own implications. The process includes
disposing of radioactive waste, which poses a threat to the environment and the
world if not contained properly and temporarily disposed of with maximum
security. In the thesis, “Nuclear power: an energy future we can’t afford”,
by Peter Kelly from Hamilton College, he wrote,
“…we’d still have to worry about terrorists making bombs out of nuclear waste.
Just five pounds of plutonium, a component of nuclear waste, is enough to make a
nuclear bomb. Such a bomb could topple the World Trade Centre and kill hundreds
of thousands of people…Terrorists may be able to recruit disgruntled
Disposing of nuclear waste is extremely controversial, because it takes
thousands of years to decompose, and the radiation remains active.
Other than the environmental effects of disposing nuclear waste, the
potential of radioactive fallout from a faulty reactor is a dangerous
possibility, and the events following the accident at Chernobyl demonstrated the
long term destructiveness radiation is capable of.In 1986 at Chernobyl, an
unauthorised experiment conducted with the cooling system turned off, lead to
the explosion of one of the reactors. The radioactive fallout spread through
the atmosphere, reaching into northern Europe and Great Britain. The Soviets
claim 31 people died directly from the accident, while deaths due to radiation
are yet to be determined. Radiation sometimes causes genetic mutations in the
child whose parents were exposed to radiation. A few years ago on the
television program 60 Minutes’, they presented a story on the after effects of
the Chernobyl accident. They revealed horrific shots of mutated embryos
preserved in jars, the most disturbing, an embryo named Cyclops’, because it
only had one eye.
While nuclear power is more efficient and environmentally safer in terms
of global warming than fossil fuels, it has a destructive potential that cannot
be ignored. Electricity, generated from the nuclear fission of Uranium 235 or
Plutonium 239 are both elements which are used in nuclear weapons. Radiation
either from waste or fall out from a reactor explosion can cause detrimental
effects, both long and short term, to the environment and society. Precautions
must be taken in security, disposal, and generation of nuclear power and its
waste, in order for it to be a successful resource and temporary alternative.
At present, renewable energy sources are too expensive and are not suitable for
large scale power generation. However, advancing technology may improve on
current systems, making them more efficient and suitable for major electricity
generation. Peter Kelly concluded his thesis, …nuclear power should be seen
as a way to tide us over to an age of conservation and renewables. Barring an
unexpected breakthrough in fusion, the age of nuclear power will end in the
1. Microsoft Encarta `95
2. Nuclear power: an energy future we can’t afford
Energy Needs and Nuclear Power
Nuclear Issues Briefing Paper 11