Apr. 23, 2014

The pros and cons of nuclear power

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September 21, 2009

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On Tuesday, Sept. 15, two representatives from Clean Energy America spoke at the College of William and Mary. The representatives are sponsored by the Nuclear Energy Institute. Because of this, I couldn’t really get an unbiased look at nuclear energy, so I did some research myself.

Nuclear energy provides about 15 percent of the world’s energy. France is the leading producer of nuclear power per capita; it comprises about 70 percent of their energy production. The United States relies on nuclear for about 20 percent of its power.

Nuclear plants work like most methods of producing energy. Water is heated into pressurized steam, which drives turbines that make electricity. But in contrast to coal plants, which burn fossil fuels to heat the water, nuclear relies on fission. Fission is the process of atoms splitting; this gives off heat and gamma radiation. Nuclear reactors use uranium, because fission can easily be induced for U-235.

The presenters gave mostly pros for nuclear energy. The following pros are a combination of information from the presenter and outside sources. I learned from Clean Energy America that the nuclear industry makes safety a first priority. Several barriers separate the radiation and heat of the reactor core from the outside. A steel pressure vessel surrounds the reactor core. A thick concrete layer surrounds the steel vessel. Yet another sealed steel containment structure surrounds the concrete layer. The second layer of steel sits inside reinforced concrete dome four feet thick. There are also various sensors which closely monitor radiation and humidity. If there should be a malfunction, an emergency cooling system would provide water to cool the reactor.

I also learned that nuclear waste isn’t actually waste. The spent fuel can be reused, and the uranium in it is actually enriched so the fuel is even more powerful. However, the U.S. does not currently recycle spent fuel.

Many of the benefits of nuclear energy are presented in opposition to coal. Everyone is concerned with carbon emissions; nuclear plants do not produce any carbon. Also, in contrast to fossil fuels, there is enough uranium to last beyond the next 50 years. The Nuclear Energy Agency estimates that supplies could last the next 230 years (at today’s consumption level). Identified uranium resources total 5.5 million metric tons, and an additional 10.5 million metric tons remain undiscovered. Uranium is supposedly more evenly distributed across the globe than fossil fuels. Some see this as an equalizer for the global economy in a world where natural resource availability drives power struggles.

I had to look up some cons myself. Apparently people are wary of nuclear meltdowns. Meltdowns occur when there is not enough coolant on the rods which contain the uranium. These overheat, the uranium fuel pellets dissolve and the fuel is exposed. The fuel will melt and eat its way out of the containment structures onto the ground outside. However before this happens, there are many lines of defense that can be employed. In fact, the famed Three Mile Island was only considered a partial meltdown because the oozing mass of white-hot fuel never melted through its containment structures.

Uranium mining leads to radon exposure to surrounding public. Radiation from the actual plant could cause problems as well. In everyday life, we collect “background radiation.” Background radiation comes from everyday objects, the atmosphere and space. However, if all of our energy came from nuclear plants, there is some concern that the small increases in radiation could have unknown effects on humans. Radiation causes radiation sickness, cancer and various genetic mutations.

As residents of Williamsburg, we live less than 10 miles away from a nuclear plant. The Surry Power Station is just a ferry ride away. It’s good to be informed!

Peace and love until next time!

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