Why Nuclear Power?
The planet is facing several issues that must be dealt with very soon. Concern over the environmental impact of energy production and the replenishing of energy reserves are the primary concerns. We live in a world of ever increasing energy demands, and ever increasing awareness of the damage that we, humans, can do to the environment.
Worldwide energy demand will nearly triple by the year 2060, and within that, electrical power demand will more than quadruple within that same timespan. Oil and gas currently provide greater than 70% if US energy, and known world energy reserves only provide a sufficient supply for the next 20 years’ worth of worldwide demand. Coal provides about 20% of US energy, and known reserves can provide US electricity needs for another 200 years, but at a cost of 250 new mines, 160,000 new miners, and $20 billion in capital in order to increase coal supply to 40% of US power.
Solar power, hydroelectric, wind, and biomass power are all insufficient in magnitude to make a significant contribution to electrical power generation. The energy required to build a solar generation station would equal the output of that station in a 30 or 40 year span. Wind power could conceivably produce 5% of US electrical demand, but only if we used 500 foot turbines, space 500 feet apart, stretching from the Canada border to the Mexico border, with a constant 20 mile per hour wind. In other words, absolutely impractical.
Current uranium reserves could very well provide all US electrical power for 60 years with current reactor technology, or greater thatn 1000 years with the use of breeder reactors. The energy output from ONE 1000 MWe nuclear power plant equals all the energy output for all autos, trucks, buses, trains, ships, and planes for a city the size of greater Portland, OR (1+ million people).
In fact, the US currently has 300,000 tons of mined, refined, and stored Uranium-238, which could provide all US power for 150 years, without turning another shovel. This is three times the world oil reserves. And all this uranium is sitting in storage as we speak.
The environmental impact of fossil fuel use is staggering. Man releases 7 billion tons per year of carbon into the air, and the release of SO2 and NO causes air pollution and acid rain. The burning of fossil fuels scatters heavy metal and radioactive particulate matter into the air. A 1000 MWe coal plant burn 100 train cars of coal per day, generating 33 train cars per day of ash that must be disposed of.
Granted, modern nuclear reactors have their downside, too. There is the volume of radioactive waste and the increase in amount of heat discharged to cooling channels, such as rivers and streams. However, with the use of fuel reprocessing and breeder reactor technology, the waste generated from nuclear reactors with have a radioactivity LESS than when the uranium was initially dug out of the ground after a 600 year decay span. Also, all the waste generated from a 1000 MWe plant in one year could easily squeeze into the space under your dining room table.
Many people are similarly uninformed about radiation hazards. The average American receives a natural background dose of 300 to 350 millirem of radiation per year. Everything around you is potentially radioactive. Bricks, stones, dirt, food, even the air you breathe has some amount of radioactive elements in it.
At the Piqua Ohio nuclear/coal plant, a power plant with both nuclear reactors and coal fired sides on the same plant, when the coal plant is fired up, the nuclear side’s radiation monitors have to be turned off due to the high level of radioactive material released by the coal burning. Also, under current federal regulations governing radiation exposure within a plant, the Capital Building in Washington, D.C. would be unlicensable by the NRC, as the stone construction of the building puts out a higher level of radiation than the federally allowed level. And, on average, whiskey has approximately 120 times the radioactivity per liter of nuclear plant discharge water. In other words, you receive a much higher internal radiation dose from a shot of whiskey than you would if you swigged a shot of nuclear power plant effluence.
It is also interesting to note the safety record of the nuclear industry. The accidents at all US nuclear power plants have shortened the lifespan of the average American by the same factor as smoking one cigarette every 20 years or gaining 1 ounce in body weight.
Meeting the energy demands of the future will require forthright planning and great technical ferocity. Environmental concerns are paramount, and future generations of humans must still have a planet to call home. Nuclear power must be part of the solution for a safer, happier future for planet Earth.
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