Nuclear energy source of power

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Chapter 1 Introduction

1.1 Background

Nuclear Energy is one of the cleanest sources of electricity, given the low lifecycle emissions of greenhouse gases from the entire nuclear energy process. Nuclear Energy is a clean source of power that already generates nearly 15 percent of the world's electricity and is expanding. Several countries in Europe rely on nuclear energy as their main source of energy such as France (76%), Belgium (53%), Slovakia (56%) and Lithuania (73%). Although some fears have been raised about the safety of nuclear energy power plants, the realistic view is that nuclear power is widely used and is a well understood source of energy. Nuclear Energy has been in use for decades and the developed safety measures are comprehensive and effective.

World's electricity generation, source: OECD/IEA 2008

This investigation is split up in to three parts:

Part 1 - Nuclear power

Addressing what nuclear power is, its properties and how it can be used an alternative energy source. I will be investigating the health issues surrounding Nuclear Energy, its advantages and disadvantages and efficiency compared to traditional energy sources (Fossil Fuels), in terms of the environment. I will look into the cost of building nuclear power stations, Nuclear powers uses, Safety issues (discussing nuclear disasters in the past), the world's needs for nuclear energy and whether or not Nuclear power is in use in the 3 nations in question, if so, what is it being used for.

Part 2 - The second part which will be discussed in this Investigation will be the Kyoto Protocol. The three main contributors to global warming will be focused on in more detail, discussing their specific targets and what they are doing to meet these and how the construction industry impacts on these 3 nations emissions.

Part 3 - The third stage of this investigation is to combine parts one and two to answer the investigations title of how Nuclear power can help in achieving Kyoto Protocol targets for the 3 main contributors to global warming.

This report will conclude whether or not nuclear power is a suitable alternative energy source for the future.

1.1.1 Nuclear Energy

Nuclear power is energy produced from controlled nuclear reactions. Commercial nuclear power plants currently use nuclear fission reactions to generate the electricity. These reactions take place inside a nuclear reactor. The reactor uses Uranium rods as fuel. Nuclear Fission is where neutrons smash into the nucleus of the uranium atoms, which split roughly in half and release energy in the form of heat. Electricity is generated by electric utility reactors heating water to produce steam, which is then used to turn turbines.

In the UK, nuclear power stations are usually built near the coast and use sea water to cool the steam produced so it can be reused. Using this method, large cooling towers are not required unlike if the Nuclear power station was located inland.

1.1.2 Health and Safety Issues

Nuclear Energy is considered safe by many when compared with other energy sources.

There are 3 safety issues with nuclear energy:

  • Controlling the rate of reaction so that it doesn't get unmanageable. If the rate of reaction is uncontrolled, the reaction cannot be contained and a meltdown could occur, resulting in the outside environment being exposed to high levels of radioactivity.
  • Managing the exposure to radioactive substances. A sufficient health and safety plan is a must and must be adhered to at all times. This is necessary during the extraction, concentration, transportation, storage and disposal stages, however radioactivity levels are higher at stages after the concentration stage, therefore the management of the Uranium is of higher importance after this stage.
  • Security of the uranium in its concentrated form can be possibly used to develop nuclear weapons.


When nuclear energy is produced radiations are produced which are highly hazardous. Coming into contact with these radiations can have an impact on future generations. For example, people who are exposed to these radiations may experience physical, mental and possibly even genetic changes. These changes in their genes are even transmitted to their children in some cases, causing them to be born with a number of congenital defects and disorders. There is a worldwide concern that living in close proximity to nuclear energy plants can have effects on surrounding residents as leaking radioactive substances can harm or even kill people. These fears have arisen from previous Nuclear power station disasters such as in Chernobyl, Ukraine 1986, which will be discusses later in this report. Exposure to radioactive materials can cause risk of leukaemia and cancer.

In Germany, between the years of 1980 and 2003, all cases of cancer of children are being recorded. Therefore it is possible to investigate into the cases of children's cancer. During this period 1592 children under the age of five got the disease out of a total of 4735 healthy children in the study.

The result showed a significantly higher risk to obtain the disease if the children lived within a 5km radius of a nuclear power plant.

According to the normal statistical values, there should have been only 48 cases of cancer and 17 cases of leukaemia within the 5km radius around the power plant, however there were 77 cases of cancer (60% more than expected) and 37 cases of leukaemia (117% more than expected). It is thought that there may be a higher risk for leukaemia even within a 50km radius around a nuclear power plant.

Environmental Effects

Nuclear energy is not necessarily a clean energy. The effects nuclear energy has on the environment pose serious concerns that need to be considered, especially before the decision to build additional nuclear power plants.

Nuclear power does not release any carbon dioxide as a waste product which makes it a very favoured alternative energy source to fossil fuels as it will significantly reduce CO2 emissions and not contribute to global warming. However, the process of building nuclear power plants and extraction of core materials use a large amount of fossil fuels as well as the transportation of radioactive waste.

Radioactive waste is a huge concern when Nuclear power is thought of as an alternative energy source. Waste from nuclear power plants can remain harmful and active for thousands of years; this poses a problem of where this waste can be stored. Currently, the majority of radioactive waste from around the world from nuclear power plants has been stored at the power plant itself due to space constraints. This waste will eventually need to be relocated. There have been plans proposed to bury the radioactive waste contained in casks in the Yucca Mountains in Nevada. Burying radioactive waste also comes with its own problems. Waste would have to be transported, and in the event of an accident, radioactive waste could leak and possibly cause severe problems. Another issue is that it is not certain that the casks containing the radioactive waste will remain 100% leak proof after it is buried. The amount of radioactive waste which is currently being stored around the world would fill the Yucca Mountains and new locations would need to be appointed as nuclear waste disposal sites. There is no current solution to deal with the disposal of radioactive waste. Some scientists feel that the idea of building more nuclear power plants and worrying about dealing with the waste in later years has the potential to have a very dangerous outcome.

Advantages of nuclear Energy

  • Nuclear power plants are more effective than ever before. New technology has made them more reliable and safer. This is shown by more and more nuclear power plants being built to capitalise on the many advantages of nuclear power.
  • Nuclear power will help reduce the amount of greenhouse gases emitted into the atmosphere. This is an important factor when considering a new main alternative energy source.
  • Reducegreenhouse gasemissions. This is a contentious issue. Proponents of nuclear power argue that, as no coal or fossil fuels are burnt, no carbon dioxide is released into the air. However, uranium has to be mined and transported to the nuclear plant. Both these activities require burning of fuels, so carbon dioxide is released. Also, producing nuclear fuel from the uranium requires a lot of energy, which also contributes to the emission of greenhouse gases.
  • Although the initial cost of building nuclear plants is high, the running costs are relatively low.
  • One reason the costs are low is that nuclear plants need only a small amount of uranium to produce a lot of energy. In fact, if the cost of uranium doubled, costs would only be increased by 7%. 1 truck of uranium produces as much energy as 1000 trucks of coal!
  • Reduces dependence on foreign oils and natural gas (likebiofuels). America, for instance, imports a lot of oil and natural gas from other countries. The price of these products is volatile, and change very quickly. If the price increases quickly, consumers have to pay more for their electricity (which they may not be able to afford). Building more nuclear power plants means that Americans will not be susceptible to price rises in oil and gas. PresidentBarack Obamasupports this idea of ‘energy independence'.
  • Nuclear wastes can be safely stored underground (another debated issue).

15% of the world's electricity came from nuclear power. More than 150 naval vessels usingnuclear propulsionhave been built.