Power Argument: The Need for Nuclear Energy

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The television screen flashed with the horrific images coming from thousands of miles away. The massive tsunami in Japan had created a crisis at the Fukushima nuclear plant. Stories were heard about radiation in the air and even in milk. The media is always sensational about these kinds of things, and seems to enjoy whipping people into a froth of panicky rage. If we step aside from the hyperbole and the news reports and really take an honest look at nuclear power, what will we really find? The answers we need come from rationality, not from fear. In spite of these recent events that has made the world more wary of the expansion of nuclear power, it is still a viable source of clean energy that should be utilized with the proper regulation and oversight.

From the very beginning, humans have relied upon fuel. The fuel source has changed over time, but the basic need for energy has not. From the earliest use of fire to warm and cook, to present day uses of nuclear power, the need for energy sources is quite apparent. Most of our energy comes from fossil fuels, finite resources that will be completely expended within a few decades at present rates.

Then of course there is the problem of climate change. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, a majority of greenhouse gas emissions comes from electric  power production. We knew some time ago that we would eventually have to have sustainable energy sources. One source of electric power is nuclear power. The quest for more, cleaner energy takes us to the famous Albert Einstein. Most people know his equation stating the relationship between energy and mass. Energy equals mass times the speed of light squared. This breakthrough by Einstein would be the idea that would lead to nuclear energy.

The online booklet “The History of Nuclear Energy” by the U.S. Department of Energy tells how the technology was developed, and provides a timeline of its progress. The discovery of nuclear energy changed the world forever. The world first saw what this new technology could do in 1945, when the U.S. dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This instilled in the world a sense of the unprecedented power of nuclear technology.

Ever since it was created, nuclear power has been controversial. People wondered about what it would do to the environment, and the possible dangers to humans from such a powerful energy source. There seems to be a multitude of myths about nuclear power abounding these day.  Many people argue that it nuclear power is inherently dangerous, and that it should be completely banned. The answers are there for us, if we take the time to look at them.

The word Chernobyl is almost synonymous with nuclear disaster.  The reactor explosion in Chernobyl, Ukraine  in 1986 was a horrible disaster The U.S.S.R. struggled to contain the contamination with little success. In the aftermath of the incident in 1986, there was widespread panic throughout Europe. The book Chernobyl: The Real Story relates how the sensationalism sometimes crossed the line into absurdity. “Daily Mirror newspaper in the United Kingdom, 30 April 1986. The main headline was ‘Please get me out mommy’ and the sub-headline was ‘Terror of trapped Britons as 2000 are feared dead in nuclear horror”. This kind of sensationalism certainly didn’t help the situation at all. The only major nuclear incident in the United States was Three Mile Island, Pennsylvania in 1979. The U.S. Nuclear regulatory Commission tells us that while frightening, TMI resulted in no deaths or injuries.

Cartoons, movies and television shows have helped contribute to the many myths that surround nuclear energy. When exposed to radiation the fictional character grows tentacles, or gains superpowers. In reality the effects of radiation sickness are nothing to laugh at. However, the chances that you will get radiation poisoning are minute, especially if you are living in Washington State that only has one nuclear power plant. Many anti-nuclear activists’ hearts are in the right place, they only want to protect and defend people from being harmed. The problem is that their fears are misplaced.

Nuclear energy is not the most dangerous energy source, and not by far. We can look at different sources of energy side by side, comparing their costs, both environmentally and in human lives. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, electric power accounted for a majority 41% of greenhouse gas emissions. If we are going to tackle climate change, certainly electric power production must be addressed. Coal is the most used fuel source in the world for electric power production. It is also one of the dirtiest, producing tons of pollutants and greenhouse gases.

While many would agree that nuclear power produces little in the way of emissions, some would argue that its benefits would be far outweighed by its detractions. In his article, David Krieger argued that nuclear power should be done away with. He stated ten different reasons why nuclear power should not be utilized. At first glance it would seem that Mr. Krieger is making an impassioned and well thought out argument, but it turns out that that is not the case at all. One could go through and counter his every argument one by one, but that would be too time consuming for the reader. He uses arguments about the supposed hubris of the industry, and of the complacency of regulators in the government. He rails against the government, saying that they do not regulate enough, or enforce standards to ensure public safety. He even states that Chernobyl and Fukushima should be “reminders” to get out of nuclear energy and into renewable energy based off of solar, wind and geothermal energy. He believes that humanity and nuclear power are not compatible, and cannot coexist.  There are many organizations out there who would agree wholeheartedly with Mr. Krieger. No one doubts that they mean well. They want to protect the environment, and human life, and what could possibly be nobler than that enterprise. The problem is that things are not so cut and dried. The idea of nuclear power as danger to the environment and as a danger to humanity is largely wrong, especially when viewed alongside the statistics from the other sources of energy including fossil fuels like coal.

For all the fear and fuss surrounding the nuclear power debate, nuclear power is the safest energy alternative available these days. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), nuclear power is the safest energy source being mass produced today. It is safer than coal, safer than natural gas. In a news release from 2005, the WHO reported on new studies that examined the impact of the Chernobyl disaster. In spite of all the panic that surrounded that event, the results are actually surprising.

Here are some facts from that report. About 4000 children became ill with thyroid cancer as a result of the disaster. Since then the survival rate has been about 99%. Poverty and unhealthy lifestyles are more dangerous to the population than the radiation contamination. There has been no increase in infertility rates among workers and other people exposed to the whole body low level radiation doses.(WHO)  They even point out in the article that one of the biggest problems is psychological, a fatalism that comes from living in the area, and all the bad things they have heard about it. If even the world’s worst nuclear disaster was not nearly as bad as everyone thought, then might it be time to take a closer look and examine the reality surrounding it, instead of the myths? If the objection to nuclear power is the safety, we have proven that it is statistically the safest energy source in mass use. We already know that nuclear power produces very little greenhouse gases. It would seem that the remaining objections to this form of energy production are ones based on stigma, and fear rather than reason.

In comparison to other sources of energy production, coal is by far the worst. It is also one of the most widely used fuels. While it is cheap and relatively plentiful, it is dirty, dangerous, and downright deadly. When we look at the whole picture of coal, how it is mined and how its use affects the climate, we can easily understand that a transition to nuclear power in place of coal is a good idea. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, 150 people have died in the U.S. from injuries sustained in coal mining since 2003. In 2008, 2,130 million metric tons of CO2 was spewed into our atmosphere by the coal industry. Nuclear power is a cleaner, safer alternative to coal, and other fossil fuel energy sources.

Many different countries are already nuclear powers, not just in the military hardware sense, but also in the production of peaceful uses of nuclear power. France’s electric energy needs are met by nuclear power. In fact, nuclear power makes up about 80% of France’s power supply. In their response to John W. Farley's 'Our Last Chance to Save Humanity', the authors lay out the reasons why nuclear power is needed, and how the left’s opposition to it is misguided. The authors tell of how France has below half of the world average for greenhouse gas emissions. Furthermore, they have the view that France is a model country in this regard and that the world could also half its emissions if they followed France’s example. Obviously government oversight in that country seems to be working. Most of the radiation that we humans are exposed to is due to natural causes and sources of radiation that exist in nature.

Nuclear energy has the potential to make our lives a lot better. It can reduce pollution, reduce CO2 emissions, helping to slow the pace off global climate change and it can be a boon to jobs and the economy if handled correctly. In the many years that it has been around, nuclear power has been proven to be a very reliable source of energy.

The recent events in Japan have shaken the international community. The news reports coming out of Japan were unsettling to say the least. Even though the danger is mostly gone, and the plants in Fukushima Japan are not in the daily news anymore, people still have the jitters over it. Like kids afraid to ride the bicycle again after a nasty fall and a scraped knee, certain countries in the world have decided that that certain road is not for them. Ironically, these countries need it as much if not more than others. According to an article in the Tulsa World, most countries have not decided to abandon nuclear energy, and for good reason. Up and coming emerging economies like China need energy, and also have to grapple with trying to tie down greenhouse emissions at the same time. Germany has decided that it will phase out all nuclear power in the coming years, as a direct reaction to the events in Japan. Japan also may be limiting current and future nuclear energy. Most of the world however realizes that nuclear power is still a viable option, and indeed is needed in this age of global warming and uncertainty in the commodity markets.

For the problem of nuclear waste, the U.S. Government has a comprehensive system by which they dispose of nuclear waste. Studies are done to ascertain the suitability of a location for a nuclear waste disposal site, and much research is done to ensure that the environment is protected. In fact the volume of the waste is usually small, and easily disposed of in a specially designated are, where it will be surrounded by rocks. These rocks will shield the waste from human beings, and other animals. Low level waste would produce even less deaths than the high level waste produced. Those deaths that would result from these wastes would be negligible compared to the deaths caused by coal. (Cohen)

It seems that Germany’s reactionary response to the events in Japan might be harmful in the long run. Pawar Yogesh points out in the article in the Daily News that Germany is going to eliminate nuclear power in their country by 2021. According to the European Nuclear Society, nuclear power currently accounts for almost a quarter of electric power production. Germany is going to have to compensate in some very expensive ways to make up for the lost energy production. This could ripple across the economy and cause even more hardship than was necessary. What could possibly be the purpose of this exercise in overreaction? Why would events thousands of miles away prompt such a reaction from Germany? Why not use nuclear instead of the much more deadly coal that currently accounts for 43.5% of their energy consumption? (Power Generation, Germany) It seems as though if you put these same actions with any other situation, that it would be seen as absurd to the highest degree. When miners are trapped for a month in a mine due to a collapse, no country decides they are going to swear off coal, even though coal is the most dangerous form of energy production on the earth. No country decided that they were going to forswear oil and petroleum products after the gulf oil spill in 2010. Not a single one. It seems that the some in the world are letting themselves be overtaken with fear, instead of looking at things with reason, and formulation plans of action based on careful thought out reasoning and an objective look at the facts. Mass hysteria is no basis for energy policy.

Nuclear technology is unfathomably powerful. In the form of a bomb, it has the power to erase cities like it was a smudge of graphite on a piece of paper. On the other hand it has the power to give life. Powering hospitals and schools. Houses and theme parks lit up with the power of existence itself. Energy production is one of humanity’s biggest issues. The need for clean, renewable energy is a quest that has not yet been fulfilled. Time is running out to find the answers. I do not argue that nuclear power should be a permanent solution. It is not. It is not renewable. Yet it has the power and efficiency, with no CO2 emissions to maybe buy us a little more time to figure out better energy production. I hope that we as humanity can work together to build a brighter future.

Works Cited

Brian Lindquist, Walt McCarron, Robert D. Furber, and Sheldon C. Plotkin "On Nuclear Power/Response to John W. Farley's 'Our Last Chance to Save Humanity'.” Monthly Review 62.9 (2011): 54-57.  Research Library Core, ProQuest. Web.  17 May. 2011.  

"Coal Mining: Injuries, Illnesses, and Fatalities Fact Sheet." U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. U.S. Department of Labor, Apr. 2010. Web. 11 June 2011

Cohen, Bernard L. "Nuclear Power Risk." The University of Pittsburgh. Web. 10 June 2011.

"Power Generation, Germany." European Nuclear Society. Web. 11 June 2011.

Foster, Malcolm and Jahn, George. "Few nations retreat from nuclear energy.” Tulsa World  15  May 2011, ProQuest Newsstand, ProQuest. Web.  17 May. 2011.

Krieger, David.  "Ten lessons from Chernobyl and Fukushima. " McClatchy - Tribune News Service  13 May 2011  ProQuest Newsstand, ProQuest. Web.  17 May.2011.

Mould, Richard F. Chernobyl: The Real Story 1st Ed. Oxford, England; New York: Pergamon Press, 1988. Print.

"NRC: Backgrounder on the Three Mile Island Accident." NRC: Home Page. U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, 15 Mar. 2011. Web. 11 June 2011.

"The History of Nuclear Energy." U.S. Department of Energy. U.S. Department of Energy, Unkown. Web. 28 May 2011.

“U.S. Carbon Dioxide Emissions from Energy Sources 2008 Flash Estimate." Energy Information Administration U.S. Department of Energy. U.S. Department of Energy, n.d. Web. 29 May 2011.

WHO/IAEA/UNDP. "Chernobyl: the true scale of the accident ." World Health Organization. N.p., 5 Sept. 2005. Web. 28 May 2011.

Yogesh, Pawar.  "Now, German panel backs anti-Jaitapur movement." DNA : Daily News & Analysis  14  May 2011, ProQuest Newsstand, ProQuest. Web.  17 May.

Photo by Paul J. Everett/cc by 2.0/Flickr

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  • [“Stories were heard about radiation in the air and even in milk.”]

    Stories…as in untrue? You are implying that there is not radiation in the air, water, soil, and milk?
    ======================
    “nuclear power, it is still a viable source of clean energy that should be utilized with the proper regulation and oversight.”

    Well, considering neither proper regulation nor oversight is a reality, I suppose that means nuclear power is not viable. And then there are accidents, fallout, natural disaster, failing containment structure, failing cooling systems, safety violations, waste storage, decommissioning…

    Posted by desertlabs, 06/27/2011 7:13pm (6 years ago)

  • The author of this article just worships nuclear power and is unwilling to explore neither the true risk of this technology nor ecological alternatives like decentralized heat- electricity combination boilers, wind energy and electricity won from methane gas. But most important the United States could safe a lot of electric energy by introducing European standard for appliances, insulation of homes and building passive (zero) energy houses etc.

    Also the Japanese Communist Party and most european left-wing parties like Die Linke and the DKP in Germany are strongly opposed to nuclear energy and for an alternative energy concept while most reactionary parties are very pro nuclear energy.

    Posted by Andreas Wiesner , 06/24/2011 2:00pm (6 years ago)

  • While not commenting on Mr. Bedwell's article above specifically, I offer the followng (free) information source:

    The novel “Rad Decision” culminates in an event very similar to the Japanese tragedy. (Same reactor type, same initial problem – a station blackout with scram.) The author has worked in the US nuclear industry for 25 years. Readers report the book is an excellent source of perspective for the lay person. The novel is free online at the moment at http://RadDecision.blogspot.com . (No adverts, nobody makes money off this site.) Reader reviews are in the homepage comments - there have been a lot, and they've been uniformly positive. One of the interesting things about modern nuclear power in the US is that few really understand how it works day to day -- including most experts who are commenting to the media on the topic. (Few have ever actually worked at a nuclear site.)

    Posted by James Aach, 06/17/2011 12:19pm (7 years ago)

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