Nuclear Power Plants Term Paper

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Nuclear Power as a Promising Alternative Fuel for the Future

The Nuclear Dilemma (World Nuclear Association)

There are a plethora of reasons in which alternative fuels are becoming increasingly desirable as potential power source for everyday consumption in the future. One such reason is that fossil fuels are non-renewable resources that will eventually be exhausted in regards to the feasibility of extracting these resources. It is not necessarily that non-renewable resources will be totally consumed, however the remaining reserves of these resources is increasingly hard to extract and the price of extraction will eventually exceed the costs associated with alternatives. For example, oil will eventually reach a point in which the costs associated with extracting it from hard to get to reserves will be more expensive than alternative fuels, such as wind, solar, and nuclear.

Another issue that is definitely salient in regards to the future of power is the growing concerns regarding anthropomorphic caused climate change. Greenhouse gas emissions, primarily produced from the burning of fossil fuels, are having significant effects on the Earth's energy balance. Certain greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane, are accumulating in the atmosphere and trapping increasing amounts of infrared heat which has implications for the Earth's climate. Nuclear power is one technology that can help mitigate this phenomenon. Although there are many potential drawbacks to the usage of nuclear power, in light of environmental concerns, the risks associated with Nuclear are significantly smaller than continuing to emit greenhouse gases.

Environmental Background

Global warming, which is also commonly referred to as climate change, is a physical phenomenon which is driven by the thickening of certain greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere. By some accounts, this phenomenon is not only a threat to many different species that inhabit Earth, but also has the potential to have profound implications for the human population. It is unlikely that the human species will become extinct due to its adaptive capacity. However, the world population rests in the neighborhood of seven billion people and climbing, and eventually the population will peak in regards to how many people the planet can support through sustainable regeneration (Roberts). Eventually the population size will cross a point in which the regenerative capacity of the planet will no longer support the needs of all the people on the planet; if this point has not been surmounted already.

It is already being predicted that literally billions of people are likely to suffer within this century as the climate becomes increasingly inhospitable for many ecosystems. Virtually every attempt to confront potential environmental catastrophes have failed or been watered down primarily due to the lack of political support from industrialized nations. Not only are countries continuing to expand their energy demands exponentially but little progress has been made to expand the production of alternative fuels. For example, the world's two biggest polluters, the United States and China, have rapidly expanded their infrastructure for energy production through traditional technologies and as a result the greenhouse emissions which will only exacerbate the problem.

The latest scientific literature clearly states that climate change is at least partly due to human activities all though the extent of the contribution is somewhat debatable. Rapidly growing concentrations of greenhouse gases since the pre-industrial era have led to a carbon dioxide concentration of roughly 391 parts per million in the atmosphere (CO2 Now). The current CO2 concentration is troubling, to say the least, because some of the most prominent scientists believe that the earth's highest level of CO2 that provides a sustainable future is somewhere around 350 parts per million (Hensen, Sato and Kharecha). Furthermore, even by more conservative estimates, the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC),, has stated that at 450 parts per million there is roughly a fifty two percent chance that catastrophic climate change will not occur (IPCC). Even under the more conservative estimate, to keep the concentrations under the 450 ppm CO2 level there must be rapid reductions in greenhouse gas emissions made within the next five years.

Nuclear Power

It is necessary to put a nuclear solution in context of the environmental concerns because there are major issues inherent in the technology. The ideal solution would undoubtedly be cost effective and renewable. However, nuclear power provides neither of these advantages (Heiman and Solomon). Furthermore, there are a plethora of other issues associated with nuclear such as the secure waste disposal and nuclear weapon proliferation. Therefore, the debate surrounding nuclear is not framed around whether or not nuclear is the "ideal" power source of the future. In fact, it is quite clear that it is not. However, the current debate surrounding nuclear power is framed in terms of whether in not this technology is the technology that is the most feasible amongst the possible options.

There has been no application for the construction of a nuclear power facility since 1978 primarily due to the fact that nuclear power has had some highly publicized failures. However, recently several utilities companies have sought permission to build new facilities within the past two years. The reason for this is that although the resulting energy from a nuclear source is inexpensive, consequences abound as to the production of that energy. Two specific consequences, the expense of constructing a nuclear power plant and disposing of the spent fuel, are looked at in light of government and public reaction to the technology (Beaver).

Despite the criticisms of nuclear, it is clear that the technology has grown to a level of maturity that wasn't present when the highly publicized disasters, such as Chernobyl, flooded the presses and public discussion. Modern plants can now operate at 90% efficiency vs. The 60% that they were capable of thirty years ago. The reason for this is that fuel has improved as producers better understand the process, and the way in which the reactors are used has been made much more efficient. Outages, which were frequent at one time, have been significantly reduced. It used to take more than 100 days to refuel a reactor, this has been reduced, in some cases, to as low as 33 days (Miller, Stakenborghs and Tsai).

A new disaster has rekindled a standing fear that has plagued nuclear power since its rise in popularity. The disaster that occurred in Japan has caused many countries to reexamine their stances on nuclear power. Countries such as Germany experienced mass protests against the use of nuclear power production. It has been argued that the U.S. should not follow suit, but should follow the continued examples set by China, Russia and South Korea among others who have not slowed in their production of nuclear power. The reason for this is that nuclear power remains a safe, cost-effective method for providing energy (Moniz).

The fact of the matter is that nuclear power is a very ready and safe means of producing electric power; especially in contrast to coal-fired plants. It is a certainly a common perception, even among industry specialist, that constructing nuclear plants based on the current nuclear design does not provide a completely safe alternative to coal-fired plants that is desirable (Stolyarevskji). However, all of the other power sources also have a plethora of disadvantages associated with them. For example, even though coal and petroleum are inexpensive in the initial phases of their use, the emission will lead to an environmental situation that will cost significantly more in the long run. Although solar and wind have few environmental side effects, the costs associated with these technologies are still cost prohibitive in regards to maintain the energy demands of modern societies. Therefore, when nuclear is placed in perspective of the available alternatives, its attractiveness increases substantially despite it not being the "ideal" solution.


It has not been argued that nuclear power is, or ever has been,…[continue]

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