Nuclear Power – Legacy and Prospects
Nuclear Power has been used extensively used in power generation in its peaceful use. While widely used in developed countries, it is of late subject to questioning as to suitability as a reliable energy source for the future. With many countries divided in opinion. Some are dropping it, others still on the fence, with yet others keeping it for energy security purposes.
Nuclear Plant Schematic
From one perspective, nuclear energy can be seen as economical, safe and clean. Harnessed well, it provides a convenient way to generate electricity that can be controlled to match needs.
Nuclear power can be said to be safe if precautionary measures are taken to safeguard society in its neighborhood, more so the workers in close proximity, especially within the premises housing the plant.
On the other hand, there are serious problems associated with the waste after its use, material that continues to have a huge potential for injury to life, not to mention potential for chronic diseases, not to mention death. We will site some of its positives and tribulations, largely sourcing from ’10 Pros and Cons of Nuclear Power’ by Joanna Burgess, see link.
The process of splitting atoms in what is known as ‘nuclear fission’ generates heat, which heat is used to produce steam. This in itself is pretty clean, with no smoke, solid particulates and other liquid bi-products as for the likes of coal, oil, firewood, charcoal or paraffin in a wick lamp.
On the other hand, the used ‘radioactive’ waste material continues to the fission process, with devastating effects to living plants and organisms, humans paramount! This radioactive process is believed to continue for some 10,000 years or so!
Now, the huge constraint lies in how to handle it, store it, and above all dispose of it! Right from mining it, through transportation, preparation and storage prior to use, in process of using it, removal and storage of its waste, and finally its disposal, all have serious safety implications!!
On the score of its risks, it may be deemed to outweigh many of its very positive attributes.
It is reported that there were as many as 438 nuclear power plants operating in 2010, with many more in the offing, with substantial investments, with US having approved US $ 55 billion loans in 2010.
This was built by Russia, the Obninsk AP-1, having got operational way back in 1954.
Said to deliver power at a lesser cost than coal, its challenge to wind and solar will be in doubt in the very near future if not already.
Attractive to developing countries
Cast against the predominant primary source of energy for electricity generation in the name of fossil fuels, nuclear power offers promise, especially that some of these poor regions are better endowed with uranium. In that vein, India looks to generating 25% of its electricity from nuclear power by 2050.
This is the dangerous side in development of armaments, a threat to world peace, stability and tranquility, against which the 1978 Nuclear Nonproliferation Act was instituted.
Nuclear waste could be put to useful purposes through extraction of more energy from it with what are known as Integrated Fast Reactors in reprocessing.
Touted as unsafe, nuclear energy production can be deemed very safe based on account of three major accidents now (Chernobyl – Russia, Three Mile Island – US and Fukushima – Japan) in over ’14,000 cumulative reactor-years of commercial operation in 32 countries’!
Effects on wildlife
Although pretty compact and requiring much less space in comparison to other primary sources of energy as solar and wind, looking at needs for say for a 1,000 MW plant, the large quantities of water used do not spare small fish and plankton, beside thermal pollution through cooling bays and other pollutants as heavy metals.
Issues of cancer arising from close proximity to potential radioactive pollution spell doom to life, although said not to be very well-researched and documented.
Nuclear can be seen in the light of a much lesser culprit in comparison to the likes of fossil fuels and coal.
While there may still be substantial supplies, supply of uranium is also finite, unlike renewable in the name of wind and solar.
April 1986 Chernobyl accident
Chernobyl Site after Accident
Although it is well over 25 years since it occurred, it left a lot of worries the world over, in particular due to:
- Fallout: this stretched to and was noticed in Scandinavian countries while Russia still kept its silence;
- Scale: considered amongst worst, a level 7 event;
- Risk projections: 1,000 thyroid cancers and 4,000 other cancers in Europe, rising to 16,000 thyroid cases 25,000 others by 2065;
- Human devastation: many died, several maimed;
- Environment: vegetation and forest badly burnt, with many years of uncertainty in future;
- Safety: measures to reduce nuclear risks were re-examined and strengthened;
This tragedy has shaken many globally, but in particular, the people of Japan, with continuing concerns of yet to be resolved even to the present date. This concern is understandable, given the very high standards in technological prowess in Japan, yet the tragedies of the mishap continue.
Role of Nuclear energy in developed world
The developed world has numerous concerns on nuclear, even for peaceful purposes, with worries of resulting waste, a headache that continues to dog efforts of mankind to solve.
We can briefly look at the following attitudes of different nations, largely making reference to the ‘Nuclear Power in a Post-Fukushima World’, in the World Nuclear Industry Status Report 2010-2011 by Mycle Schneider, Antony Froggatt and Steve Thomas, see link :
- China: proposed to look more closely in drafting future energy plans, although it is not likely to alter its long-term nuclear development plans;
- India: chose to exercise more caution, slowdown on implementation of plans, but remain on course, with recent activities registered;
- Indonesia: views nuclear as an inevitable evil, necessary in addressing their energy problems. There is however caution as the country is prone to disasters in form of earthquakes and tsunamis;
- Japan: at the time of this cited report, 14 of the 54 reactors were offline due to the Fukushima tragedy. The country is now looking more to other sources, solar prominent amongst those;
- Malaysia: political opposition is strong, although the leadership believes the situation can be handled to implement their desired programs;
- Thailand: March 2011 polls showed an 83-percent opposition to building nuclear plants;
- United Arab Emirates: South Korea in process of building a nuclear plant at Braka, 300 km west of Abu Dhabi;
- European Union: to examine whether EU can do without nuclear power; to review safety; to seek stress tests to be carried out in other countries; seek highest safety standards; review regulatory framework;
- Bulgaria: EU would like plans to build second nuclear plant in the Danube re-examined;
- Czech Republic: no immediate plans to review nuclear expansion plans;
- Finland: will review safety of nuclear program following Fukushima tragedy;
- France: while saying abandoning nuclear program is out of the question in the view of President Sarkozy, plans were to be put in place to review safety of all 58 operating reactors, with a major party vying for phasing it out;
- Germany: reluctant to reactivate any reactors shutdown, spending more on strengthening safety, and, looking more to other sources;
- Italy: has plans to maintain and further develop dependence on nuclear power, although the public consensus is against nuclear development;
- Netherlands: planned to hinge future directions on Fukushima developments;
- Poland: while it planned to go ahead to build its first plant, it considers public opinion important through a possible referendum;
- Sweden: while more Swedes are preferring departing from nuclear energy, government remains undecided on whether to replace the country’s operating units;
- Russia: President Putin demanded a review after Fukushima as basis for charting the way forward;
- Switzerland: was first to suspend approval of three new plants after Fukushima incident, with the bulk of the population opting for phasing out their nuclear program;
- Brazil: expressed caution after saying 4 new reactors could be constructed after Fukushima;
- United States: while expressing caution, Republicans were keen on keeping nuclear development on the agenda, with proposals 200 new plants in long run across US by 2040. On the other hand, big nuclear utility NRG withdrew from a project, foregoing a sunk investment to the tune of US $ 481 million over the uncertain future of the industry way back in April 2011;
- Canada: while it downgraded the nuclear share of electricity from 19.1% in 1994 to 15.1% in 2010, it has been going slow on restarting closed ones and developing the sector in general;
We could very roughly summarize attitudes to nuclear by states as follows:
- Germany: better abandoned;
- France: keep on pursuit;
- Belgium: abandon, with total closure by 2025;
- UK: get a ‘new generation’ of nuclear power for the country;
- Italy: nuclear plans off agenda for at least next 5 years;
- US: closures point to not so bright a future;
- India: beef generation in next 25 years close to three-fold – 9% of electricity generation mix;
- China: increase from 17 plants in 2013, with 32 under construction, likely bypassing Russia and South Korea;
- Russia: increase generation, doubling output by 2020;
- Japan: from strategic priority to decommissioning 6 plants at Fukushima and shifting to solar PV, with gas filling the gap in the interim;