Nuclear Power the Best Alternative to Fossil Fuel?
Is nuclear energy the best alternative to fossil fuels in terms of the need for energy, taking into account the economy and the environment? This is an issue that embraces several other issues, in particular global climate change, the science behind climate change, the politics surrounding climate change and the continuing need for new sources of energy. This paper will address those issues using scholarly research and other data produced by worthy sources. Thesis: Available, credible research shows that nuclear power plants today are prohibitively expensive to build and moreover, the public has become increasing fearful and skeptical of nuclear energy following the tsunami and radioactive disaster in Japan. Hence, nuclear power does not appear at this time to be a valid alternative to fossil fuel notwithstanding the need to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
Global climate change -- the latest research
There are still a few elected officials in the United States -- and conservative talk show hosts -- that do not accept the science that clearly shows the planet is heating up -- and that human activities are causing the warming of the planet. These voices are important to recognize because they do influence the public's thinking on climate change. For example, the radio listening audience of conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh is estimated at fifteen to twenty million per week, and the far right host makes statements like, "They're liberals perpetuating a hoax…We're not getting warmer…[it's] a big fat lie" (rushlimbeaugh.com).
U.S. Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma denies there is climate change or that humans are contributing to it. After President Barak Obama announced that his administration would set limits on emissions from coal-powered electrical generating plants, Inhofe said: "Their goal is not to protect the American people, it is to control them. They want top-down control, and carbon dioxide regulations will give this to them" (McAuliff, 2013). But notwithstanding the public personalities that deny climate change -- and in the process cast doubts in the minds of citizens -- the United Nations' sponsored group, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), has issued its latest report asserting that the problem "…is likely to grow substantially worse unless greenhouse emissions are brought under control" (Gillis, 2014).
A news story in The New York Times reviews that latest report from the IPCC, which identifies the burning of fossil fuel as the key reason for the warming of the planet. "Ice caps are melting, sea ice in the Arctic is collapsing, water supplies are coming under stress, heat waves and heavy rains are intensifying, coral reefs are dying," and many species (including some fish) are becoming extinct (Gillis, p. 1).
The oceans are rising which threatens many coastal communities around the globe, and oceans are becoming more acidic because they are absorbing the carbon dioxide that fossil-fueled power plants are emitting into the atmosphere, Gillis reports, based on the IPCC's latest research. According to the IPCC, the world's food supply as at "considerable risk -- a threat that could have serious consequences for the poorest nations" (Gillis, p. 1). The report went on to explain that climate change will likely slow down economic growth, make poverty reduction "more difficult," and that climate change is not just an event that may happen in the future.
Climate change scientist Michael Mann's article in the Scientific American (April, 2014) posits that "…if the world keeps burning fossil fuels at the current rate, it will cross a threshold into environmental ruin by 2036" (Mann, 2014). Mann, who contributes empirical research to the IPCC, notes that the preindustrial level of CO2 was about "280 parts per million (ppm)"; and in 2013 the CO2 "…briefly reached 400 ppm for the first time in recorded history."
Mann added that the 400 ppm level might have been reached "…for the first time in millions of years, according to geologic evidence." And the consensus among the hundreds of scientists that participate in and contribute to the IPCC is that if the CO2 levels cross the "threshold" of 405 ppm, "that will harm civilization" (Mann, p. 5) Moreover, if a level of 450 ppm is reached (which it will by 2036 if current rates of CO2 continue to be put into the atmosphere), the world's atmosphere will be warmed by two degrees Celsius "…human civilization will suffer dangerous harm" (Mann, p. 5).
How do fossil fuel & other greenhouse gases contribute to global climate change?
The Environmental Protection Agency explains that carbon dioxide is "the primary greenhouse gas emitted through human activities"; and albeit CO2 is "naturally present in the atmosphere as part of the Earth's carbon cycle," human-related sources have increased the concentration of CO2, which creates the "greenhouse effect" (EPA). The greenhouse effect is known to trap heat within the atmosphere, causing climate change.
The human-related sources, according to NASA, come from the burning of fossil fuels, deforestation, and other land use changes. Another contributor to greenhouse gases is methane, which is produced by the decomposition of wastes in landfills and agricultural activities; nitrous oxide is another greenhouse gas contributor, which contributes through the "…use of commercial and organic fertilizers, fossil fuel combustion, nitric acid production and biomass burning" (NASA).
The Union of Concerned Scientists explains that coal-fired plants are "the top source of carbon dioxide emissions," and data presented for 2011 show that the 600 or so coal-fired plants in the U.S. contribute 3.5 million tons of CO2 annually (UCS). Coal-fired plants also contribute SO2 (sulfur dioxide) which "damages crops, forests, soils," and "penetrates into human lungs" (UCS). Coal-fired plants also contribute nitrogen oxides (NOX), particulate matter, mercury, and "other harmful pollutants" (UCS).
Moreover, extracting coal from the land creates serious environmental and social consequences. In Kentucky and other Appalachian states like West Virginia, "mountaintop removal" is a strategy that literally scrapes away mountaintops to reach valuable coal deposits. "Over 500 mountaintops have already been destroyed and more than one million acres of forest have been clear-cut" in order to reach coal deposits in the cheapest way possible (Perks, 2011). Over a "…thousand miles of valley streams have been buried under tons of rubble, polluting drinking water" and raising health and safety concerns for residents in the region (Perks, p. 1).
Nuclear as an alternative to coal-fired plants (i.e., fossil fuel plants)
Clearly, coal is a culprit when it comes to the reality of climate change worldwide. Indeed, coal is a major contributor to the warming of the planet, and because there is a great supply of coal under the surface of mountains and other lands in the U.S., it is understandable that it continues to be a major ingredient when it comes to the production of electricity in America. Although the Obama Administration would like to restrict the amount of greenhouse gases produced by coal-fired plants, no one is advocating shutting down the coal-fired plants because the daily lives of Americans -- and U.S. industry -- depend on those plants to continue producing electricity.
But, looking into the future, what are the alternatives to coal? This paper is focusing on whether nuclear is a workable alternative to coal -- and fossil fuel burning per se, including natural gas -- but there are other alternatives beyond the potential of nuclear power plants, and they will be reviewed and critiqued as well.
First, the facts about nuclear power will be covered in this paper. The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) explains that there are currently 65 commercially operating nuclear plants in the U.S. In 31 states. Thirty six of the nuclear plants have two or more reactors, and the total estimated amount of electricity produced by these plants is 20% each year (EIA). Nuclear energy is that energy contained in the nucleus -- or core -- of an atom. There is "enormous energy in the bonds that hold the nucleus together," and great amounts of energy is released when those bonds are broken" (EIA).
How do nuclear plants work -- what powers nuclear energy?
Nuclear plants are powered by nuclear fission; the atoms are "split apart to form smaller atoms, releasing energy," which is used to produce electricity (EIA). Basically, a nuclear plant goes through a fission process, fueled by uranium (U-235), which is manufactured into small, round fuel pellets. According to Duke Energy, one pellet is about an inch long but "…produces the energy equivalent to a ton of coal." The pellets are put into a fuel rod ("end-to-end"), and 200 rods are "grouped into what is known as a fuel assembly" (Duke).
When the uranium atoms are split through the process of fission, the neutrons (particles that result from the splitting of the atoms) collides with other neutrons which in turn creates a "chain reaction," producing heat (Duke). In a pressurized water reactor, basically what happens is the heat produced by the chain reaction heats water which turns turbines which creates electricity. There are other processes leading to that heating…
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"Global Warming Realities Project That There Will Be Fewer Coal Burning Plants", 04 April 2014, Accessed.23 April. 2017, http://www.paperdue.com/essay/global-warming-realities-project-that-there-186765