Nuclear Power Uses
Is nuclear energy clean energy? Are its benefits greater than its risks? One of the basic characteristics of our “modern” societies is the usage of various products/goods/services that are involved to our lives.
We can think hundreds of such goods that were not used before and we are using them today in order to satisfy our wants and to meet our needs: from walkman to cars, from computers to bank machines. Of course, there are thousands of businesses and manufacturers that supply all these products/services and they all require energy to work.
Can we imagine our “modern” world without electricity? Can we imagine it, without the kind of energy that produces electricity? Purpose of this text is to examine one basic source of energy-nuclear energy. This text will discuss advantages and disadvantages of nuclear power.
We will examine the basic points about nuclear energy and we will compare them to the usage of other energy sources. But, what do we mean by nuclear energy?
Nuclear energy refers to the energy that we can obtain if we split atoms. Atoms have neutrons, protons (both in nucleus) and electrons (around nucleus). If nucleus breaks up, huge amount of energy is released. This procedure is called fission.
The energy is explained by the difference of mass between fission products and reactants. The energy and the heat that are produced can be used to produce electricity. The whole issue was under consideration from the beginning of the 20th century but the greatest physician; Albert Einstein explored the usage by giving enough details. Later on, the impact of nuclear energy was understandable in order to give a great energy source and —unfortunately- the absolute lethal weapon.
The World War 2 and the Hiroshima-Nagasaki bombs proved the consequences of nuclear power as a war “tool”. One important thing that we must mention is that the products of a nuclear explosion (as a bomb or as an accident) have the ability to “keep” their radioactivity for a period of time. That means that the consequences will not stop, but they will affect peoples and environment for a long time.
Most of the world’s electricity is generated by either thermal or hydroelectric power plants. Thermal power plants use fuel to boil water which makes steam. The steam turns turbines that generate electricity. Hydroelectric power plants use the great force of rushing water from a dam or a waterfall to turn the turbines.
The majority of thermal power plants burn fossil fuels because thermal power plants are cheaper to maintain and have to meet less of the governments requirements compared to nuclear power plants. Fossil fuels are coal and oil. The downfall of using fossil fuels is that they are limited. Fossil fuels are developed from the remains of plants and animals that died millions of years ago. Burning fossil fuels has other downfalls, too. All the burning that is required to turn the turbines releases a lot of sulfur, nitrogen gases, and other pollutants into the atmosphere.
Nuclear power plants generate only about eleven percent of the world’s electricity. There are around 316 nuclear power plants in the world that creates 213,000 megawatts of electricity. (INFOPEDIA) Radioactive, or nuclear, waste is the by-product of nuclear fission. Fission occurs when atoms’ nucleus’ split and cause a nuclear reaction.
When a free neutron splits a nucleus, energy is released along with free neutrons, fission fragments that give off beta rays, and gamma rays. A free neutron from the nucleus that just split splits another nucleus. This process continues on and is called a chain reaction. (World Book vol. 14, 588)
Nowadays, we are using all the above ways to produce energy and scientists are trying to improve their applications in order to achieve the maximum benefits and to reduce the financial/environmental cost(s). The amount of energy differs from each method, as well, as the dangers for people and environment. Nuclear energy is a great source but it has many “traps” and dangers.
In a nuclear power plant, Uranium is used as fuel to boil the water for the steam that makes the turbines turn. So, uranium is, in a sense, the coal of a coal-fired power plant. When fueling nuclear power plants, the uranium arrives as uranium-enriched pellets. These pellets are an equivalent to one ton of coal. The pellets are sealed in tubes that are made of a strong heat-and corrosion-resistant metal alloy. This metal alloy will protect people and the environment from the high levels of radiation that the uranium is giving off.
The tubes are bundled together to make a fuel assembly. The assemblies are put inside the reactor to create heat that will boil the water. The fuel assemblies are used until they are depleted and sent to a repository.
A repository is a storage facility that stores high-level nuclear waste deep underground so the waste cannot harm or effect people or the environment. (DOE’s Yucca Mountain Studies) With the technology that we [humankind] have today, scientists believe it to be possible to make a repository somewhere. The guidelines of a repository are mainly if the geologic location will work out (i.e. will an earthquake be able to rupture it, will water be able to corrode the repositories outer wall.).
To make sure that the repository would be able to stay unharmed for thousands of years, scientists in all areas of science are making predictions of what could happen over the time period. According to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) standards, a repository may pose no greater threat than un-mined uranium from which the high-level waste was produced.
The repository the EPA wants to make has to be proven that it will still be isolated underground in 10,000. After this extensive time, the high-level waste should no longer be radioactive enough to harm the public health.
Can we refer to nuclear energy as a clean source? To answer this we must examine both advantages and disadvantages of the usage and to refer to some events that indicated various outcomes.
THE “CLEAN” SIDE… By using nuclear power we can avoid some others source that can cause serious pollution. For example, we can produce electricity without any kind of burning fuel. Burning fuels would create serious damages to environment.
We all know the color of the sky in various places where factories burn such products for their manufacturing activities. Probably the two cleanest sources of electricity are hydropower and nuclear energy. Similar, we can talk about the effects and the pollution that caused by using various energy sources.
One of the most basic pollutants is Carbon Dioxide. Carbon Dioxide (CO2) causes serious damages to our environment. It has the ability to not let the heat (from sun) to escape from atmosphere. So, the heat is trapped into earth causing various effects to the physical balance (climate problems, green house phenomena).
Nuclear energy replaced other sources that produce Carbon Dioxide and prevent a higher CO2 level to our atmosphere. Another sources of pollution are Nitrogen Oxide (NOx) and Sulfur Dioxide (SO2). Both of these chemicals cause serious problems to our health. They are in part, produced by burning fossil fuels. It is logical to assume that if we use nuclear energy we will pollute our environment less.
In USA, nuclear plants have displaced about 82.000.000 SO2 tons between 1973-1997. Without the usage of nuclear energy, there is estimation that the level of Carbon Dioxide (CO2) would be fifty percent more. Nuclear energy could reduce Carbon Dioxide by 155.000.000 metric tons. In addition, the level of Nitrogen Oxide (NOx)-again in USA- could be 37.500.000 tons less. In 1996, electricity sources were replaced (fossil fuels to nuclear energy) causing a decrease of 16.000.000 tons of Sulfur Dioxide. Generally, between 1973 and 1996 the amount of Sulfur Dioxide reduced was 219.000.000 tons —worldwide. From all the above, it is easily understandable that there are advantages by using nuclear energy, comparing to other sources. Of course, this does not-automatically- mean that nuclear energy is characterized as clean as others are not.
Unfortunately many people lost their lives from accidents and bombs that utilized nuclear power. In the Second World War nuclear power was harness into an atomic bomb. This was used as a weapon of mass destruction. Hiroshima and Nagasaki are towns that were all but wiped out due to technology dropped by our country.
On April 25th -26th, 1986 the World’s worst nuclear power accident occurred at Chernobyl in the former USSR (now Ukraine). The Chernobyl nuclear power plant located 80 miles north of Kiev had 4 reactors. While testing reactor number 4 numerous safety procedures were disregarded. At 1:23am the chain reaction in the reactor became out of control creating explosions and a fireball which blew off the reactor’s heavy steel and concrete lid.
The Chernobyl accident killed more than 30 people immediately, and as a result of the high radiation levels in the surrounding 20-mile radius, 13,500 people had to be evacuated.
The consequences of such incidents/ accidents were (and many times, are) still faced from citizens and environment because of the abilities of radioactive elements through time. Thus, how can we describe this type of energy “clean”?
Nuclear energy was, is and will be a very powerful form of energy. Actually it is the most powerful- and has many dangers for our health, for the environment and for every type of life into the planet.
The effect of radiation can be fatal and can cause serious damages. First of all, an exposure to high level radiation will cause death, as many functions of our body will stop (molecules in our body will be ionized). In addition, higher percentages in the possibility of cancer and leukemia for people that are in contact with radiation (for example a worker in a nuclear station has more possibilities of exposure in radiation than others).
A rem is a unit scientist use to measure radiation exposure. Over a person’s lifetime, they usually receive 7-14 rems of natural sources of radiation, such as cosmic rays and ultraviolet rays from the sun. On a single exposure of 5-75 rems, there are few to no noticeable symptoms.
For someone to receive 75-200 rems of exposure, vomiting, fatigue, and loss of appetite would occur. Recovery would take a few weeks. If someone were to be exposed to more than 300 rems, severe changes in blood cells and hemorrhage takes place. If someone were to receive more than 600 rems, symptoms would be hair loss, loss in your body’s ability to fight infection and usually results in death. (World Book vol. 16, 79)
The effects of radiation sickness is not too pleasant. The main reason for building a repository is to keep people and the environment safe from deadly radiation.
The workers of our countries 104 nuclear plants are among at most risk for radiation exposure. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission, or NRC, a federally governed organization, regulates the allowed limit for occupational radiation workers. The average amount for workers is .65 Rem per year. The federal limit of radiation for plant workers is 5 rems per year. This is measured by total of external whole body dose and internal dose. Eye exposure to radiation is also closely monitored. The NRC limit for eye exposure is 15 rems per year.
Nuclear power is also used in our nation’s defense. Submarines and aircraft carriers use nuclear power to generate enough power to propel the enormous vessels.
Nuclear power has a lot of advantages over other forms of energy production. There are some negative effects such as health risks, environmental risks, misuses in weapons, and the threat of total destruction. If nuclear power is closely regulated and used properly, it can serve as a useful and “clean” source of energy that will send this country into a cleaner, safer future.