Nations have depended on coal for centuries to produce a majority of their electricity, but now with global warming and climate change many nations are looking for green alternatives. On August 6, 1945, the world was introduced to the amazing energy behind nuclear energy with the drop of the first atomic bomb. Grolier Online found that in 1939 two German scientists, Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassman, had reported an experiment “involving neutron irradiation of uranium”; meaning exposed the uranium to radiation or streams of particles and produced energy (2). Although some energy alternatives create little or no waste and appear safer than nuclear energy, nuclear energy is more efficient, produces more power than any other energy source known, and the energy source is in great abundance and should become the U.S.'s number one source of energy, replacing our need for unclean, carbon emitting coal.
Three Mile Island nuclear power plant near Middletown, Pennsylvania, March 28, 1979, a water pump stops working and that's just the beginning (U.S. N.R.C.). There was a release of radiation into the atmosphere, but as Opposing Viewpoints: Energy Alternatives described that there is more radiation standing a few minutes in the midst of the granite of Grand Central Station than released from Three Mile Island on this day (80). No lives were lost and because of the rules and regulations put on United States industries, especially nuclear plants, there were no major consequences to the reactor meltdown. However, a serious problem did not happen at Three Mile Island, but was a completely different story at Chernobyl, in the Ukraine. At the time, Chernobyl was part of the vast Soviet Union; it grew in power and needed more energy. The Soviets went nuclear. Chernobyl was a massive nuclear complex with poor construction and even poorer regulations by the Soviets. On April 26, 1986, during a routine shutdown, the automatic safety was taken off and everything began to go wrong. Coolant was not getting to the right places, but power was being increased which led to an incredible explosion. The explosion released 30 to 40 times as much radioactive waste as the bombs dropped on Japan. Many were killed and many are still suffering the consequences for the arrogance of the “Soviet era” nuclear plants, Opposing Viewpoints: Energy Alternatives points out (80). It is going to cost trillions of dollars to clean up around Chernobyl and to cover the reactor that released and is still releasing tons of radiation every year. Where as the only cost to Three Mile Island was the shutdown of the plant.
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Even though these two situations, that should be forgotten, are extreme and have created an adverse reputation for nuclear energy, nuclear energy is safe if the correct rules, regulation, and actions are taken when things go south. Chernobyl was cheaply built, poorly regulated, and technology at the plant was comparable to, at most, a World War 2 fighter jet. In an interview with the CEO of the Wabash REMC, the county electric company, the executive portrayed the Soviet era nuclear plants as “pole barns at best” (Rob Pearson). American built nuclear plants are built of concrete a few feet thick to prevent any radiation leak. These plants have the most advanced technology in the world to date with rooms the size of basketball courts just for the control panels. The United States has placed restrictions on building codes and maintenance as well as the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) making unscheduled and regular check-ups to American nuclear plants. CQ Researcher, “Nuclear Energy” states ‘significant events,’ such as reactor shutdowns and problems with important safety equipment, fell from 0.9 [incidents] per year per plant in 1989 to 0.02 [incidents] in 2003 . . . (221) showing the increasing safety as the years go on. Old plants have been and are being updated to current safety and technology standards to prevent any major incident and maintain the world's safest nuclear program in the United States. As in any industry, there will always be problems and something will go wrong, but the U.S. is doing its best to prevent these problems from effecting civilians. Many are worried about radioactive nuclear waste, the costly and extremely dangerous detriment of nuclear power plants. Nuclear energy is produced from uranium-235, which is naturally radioactive, but the products, strontium-96 and xenon-138, become highly radioactive after the nuclear fission process. So what can we do with all this material after the fission process? There are many options: enrich, storage in mountainsides, entombment under the sea, nuclear transmutation, shooting it into space or at the sun, and many more. Enrichment is a process of taking the waste and concentrating it to almost five percent of its actual size, Rob Person explained to me, so there is less waste, putting all other storage processes on a smaller scale. Entombment under the sea, Critical Perspectives on Energy and Power, “Disposing of Nuclear Waste,” gives detail that the waste is put into a pointed tube then dropped into the deepest parts of the sea, specifically the pacific trenches, where it is then sucked into the mantle and dissolves in the extreme heat of the core of the earth. Nuclear transmutation is a process of bombarding the waste with neutrons to produce less radioactive materials that would be radioactive for only hundreds or even tens of years, where as currently the waste could be radioactive for ten thousand years (77). Much research is being put into better processes of disposal of the waste. Currently the waste is in large storage containers at the nuclear plant cooling and drying or sitting in 55-gallon barrels in the side of a mountain.
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The output of nuclear energy, in contrast, is twenty-five millions times the output of coal, Grolier Online, “Nuclear Energy” found. One pound of coal produces eight electron volts (eV) with a burn-off of carbon dioxide, this increase being a main cause of global warming and climate change. However, with nuclear fission, the current process for nuclear energy, one pound of uranium-235 produces 200 million eV with absolutely no carbon dioxide emissions. There is new technology going into the process of nuclear fusion, a process where hydrogen is used to produce 18 million eV and the only by-product is helium and energy (1). This process has no radioactive waste, but produces five times the heat as the sun making it very difficult to contain all that energy, but making it possible to extract more hydrogen from water. Making this energy source completely independent from any outside sources. Rob Pearson clarified that there are many other energy alternatives that are producing energy, but the efficiency of these alternatives is about one third of their potential. Wind power is unreliable, running only when the wind is strong enough to turn the turbines, and getting the power from the turbine to homes is a project in itself. Solar panels use only ten percent of the light spectrum and have to be the size of a football field to produce enough energy for a small town of a few thousand people. Current alternatives only produce a small percent of our energy needed because their efficiency is so poor.
The United States has had one of the best plans for constructing more nuclear plants, but their ability to put the plan into action is lacking. The United States depends on 104 nuclear plants with a total of 441 water-cooled reactors, the current process of nuclear fission. These plants produce twenty to twenty-two percent of the nations electricity generating close to 788.6 terawatt hours of electricity in 2004 giving the U.S. the world's most nuclear plants with the best and largest nuclear program. In CQ Researcher, “Nuclear Energy” the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) predicts that by 2030 the U.S. will be producing only 871 terawatt hours of electricity--if and only if six new nuclear plants are built and existing plants are updated to produce more power. Since the last major debacle of Three Mile Island in 1979, which spread so much fear, more than twenty-nine years have passed with no new nuclear plants having begun construction. Last year America was to begin construction on twenty-five new plants, law makers shot the bill down when it was time to act. In better hopes though, Secretary of the United States Department of Energy announced in 2002 it Nuclear Power 2010 program that would do a joint government/industry cost share to produce more nuclear plants and give incentive to power companies to begin building (1). Now with global warming and climate change and need for more electricity, proven by the blackouts in major cities in the past few years, there is only one thing that can fit the need to decrease all of these-nuclear energy.
Nuclear energy has been pigeonholed by two unfortunate events leaving most afraid of it, but with the current crises on the world's hand, the need for more power and less dependence on hydrogen-carbonates, carbon dioxide emitting fuels such as coal and oil, the world must begin constructing and researching more in nuclear energy. Governments are taking every precaution, setting rules, regulations, and regular and random check-ups, to make nuclear energy just as safe as any other major source of electricity. Nuclear waste has been in research for many years now and should be reaching a safe and effective means of disposal. The U.S. must begin trusting nuclear energy and start relying on it as the number one source of energy replacing carbon emitting coal plants and inefficient energy alternatives.
Colin, Thomas J., Ed. “Nuclear Energy.” CQ Researcher 16.10 (2006): 217-40.
Cothran, Helen, Ed. Opposing Viewpoints Energy Alternatives. California: Greenhaven Press, 2002.
Hall, Linley Erin, Ed. Critical Perspectives on Energy and Power. New York: The Rosen Publishing Group, Inc., 2007.pHansen, Kent F. “Nuclear Energy.” Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia. 2008: (1-5) Grolier Online. 30 Oct. 2008 article? assetid=0210870-0>.
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Pearson, Rob. Personal Interview. 16 Oct. 2008.
United States. Dept. of Energy. Nuclear Energy 2010. 12 Oct. 2008.
United States. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Fact Sheet on the Three Mile Island Incident. 17 Oct. 2008 < http://www.nrc.gov/reading-rm/doc-collections/fact-sheets/3mile-isle.html.>/p>