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Wednesday, 2 July 2008

The Nuclear Debate

Is nuclear power the much awaited solution to the energy crisis? Let us try and analyse the pros and cons of going nuclear. After all, we are in the "post- Nuclear Age", right?

Going ‘for’ the motion:

For starters we have to point out that scientists are not sure exactly what is causing global warming. While most people would say that the so‐called greenhouse gases are responsible, the truth is that we do not know what exactly the reason is. The production of these kind of gases incremented exponentially in the last decades, but we are observing just a limited modification in temperature; while we know in the ages past there was far greater temperature oscillation‐not caused by greenhouses gases.

Of course, this does not mean we should not care about emissions of dangerous gases or other chemical compounds. Nuclear power may not be the answer to global warming but it our last and best chance to consolidate our lifestyle. Our current world is extremely power‐hungry, and we have to find a cheap and reliable energy source not just for the future but for the generations to come.

Nuclear power can be the solution here. Nuclear reactors are expensive in design and construction, but, once established, a nuclear power plant can extract energy from fission for decades with low operational cost. The third and fourth generation fission reactors are extremely safe machines: they include active and passive security systems that allow the reactor to automatically shut down with neither the intervention of any operator nor any external energy source. Some will say that exhausted nuclear fuel is still an issue, but this is not completely true. The waste with the longest half‐life can be stored in geological depots that are known to be absolutely safe for the whole and the next geological era. Additionally, most parts of the self‐breeder reactors have the ability to transmute radioactive materials, and so, they can reuse the same fuel until a short‐living waste can be produced.

Of course, nuclear power is not limited to the current fission technology: it is clear that a sustained research and technological effort can lead us to harness the power of controlled nuclear fusion in some 50 years from now. Z‐machine, NIF, ITER, you name it, the technology is almost there. We just need to convince people and politicians that this is the future.

Talking about renewable energy is not enough to solve the problem. Looking at the best estimates, we can safely say that this kind of technology will allow any advanced country to produce 20% or 30% maximum of its needs. The rest is simply a lie‐it is not and it will probably never be possible to cover 100% of our energetic needs with renewable energy.

Nuclear power is, according to our current physics, the best we can bet on. For us, and for our progeny.

Going ‘against’ the motion:

To begin with, there is no such thing as THE answer to global warming. That would assume there was only one cause, which is not the case. Addressing nuclear energy in particular, however, there are several problems with relying on it for energy production.
The nuclear industry wants to resuscitate its product. Sorry— it already died of an incurable attack of market forces. Only centrally planned energy systems (Russia, Taiwan, the Koreas, and Japan) still propose nuclear plants.

“If a thing is not worth doing,” said economist John Maynard Keynes, “it is not worth doing well.” Even ignoring risks— proliferation, waste storage and disposal, and uninsurable accidents— nuclear power is uncompetitive and unnecessary.

Nuclear energy advocates say that it is ideal because it doesn't put off greenhouse gases. This is only true if you are looking at the final product of nuclear fuel being used in a nuclear reactor to produce electricity. It kind of falls apart, however, if you look at the process leading up to the existence of that reactor and the fuel it contains.

One of the major sources of greenhouse gases is fuel combustion. Where does the fuel in a nuclear reactor come from? It comes from the ground; it must be dug up. What digs it up? Earth‐moving machinery that operates on‐you guessed it‐fuel. Nobody has invented earth‐moving machinery or mining equipment that operates without pollution. This would seem to be a rather important oversight.

Similar issues are involved with the building of the reactor. Have you ever heard of a building contractor that does its job with no combustion fuel, whatsoever? Me neither. And what isn't powered by fuel has to be powered by electricity. That electricity has to be generated from somewhere. Diesel fuel and gasoline are definitely involved.

Furthermore, consider where uranium comes from. Because it is underground, one must dig to obtain it. It is often found in areas with trees and other ground cover, so these must be cleared away. When you cut down vegetation you eliminate some of Nature's best carbon‐scrubbers. A uranium mine isn't a tropical rainforest, mind you, but if the end goal is to reduce global warming then perhaps we need to be looking at other ways to do that without destroying what the Earth already has in place to keep atmospheric carbon in check.

Also, when one digs up the soil, it is another source of atmospheric carbon. (This is also a problem with farming, since you have to plow first before you can plant.) Disturbed earth puts off CO2 in large amounts. Again, uranium mining isn't the same as vast stretches of farmland, but if what we're after is reducing global warming, why do things that increase it even a little?

Once the reactor is built and the fuel put into it, that iss not the end of the story. Fuel still needs to be transported to the reactor site periodically. That is going to require the production of greenhouse gases. And one day the reactor will need to be retired, which will mean another reactor needs to be built.

Additionally, the building of nuclear reactors may eliminate some greenhouse gases from electricity production, but that is not the end of the story. Electricity production is only one major source. If we are not doing anything about all the carbon put out by automobiles and other vehicles, we are still going to have serious problems in the future. There are six billion people on this planet, a good many of them own cars, and still more are gaining affluence and would like to own cars one day. That’s going to add up in a hurry.

If we only consider greenhouse gases produced by power plants and don't consider other sources of those gases then we haven't solved anything. People will assume it's OK to continue buying lots and lots of cars, and that it's OK to not care whether those cars have the best fuel efficiency possible. We will also continue engaging in other behaviors that increase the amount of CO 2 in the atmosphere.

Efficient use is the nation’s largest and fastest growing energy source: bigger than oil, growing 3.1% a year. Just electricity efficiency can save four times’ nuclear power’s output, at one‐sixth its operating cost. Those faster, cheaper, safer options emit little or no pollution, and most are climate‐safe. But replacing power from coal‐fired plants with nuclear power, as usually proposed, is the least‐effective solution to global warming.

We need to look at global warming as a systemic problem with lots of different causes, which is exactly what it is, and approach the problems from that perspective. I have doubts we are going to be able to reverse the damage we have done, but if we are serious about even trying in the first place, let's do it right.

Nuclear salesmen scour the world for a single order; makers of alternatives enjoy brisk business. Let’s profit from their experience. Taking markets seriously, not propping up failed technologies at public expense, offers a stable climate, a prosperous economy and a cleaner and more peaceful world.

Bottom‐line: It’s too costly and too risky. More energy‐efficient alternatives exist.


Anonymous said...

Anonymous writes:

Hi All,

First things first...Karthick, please accept my congratulations on a well written piece....i can see u have done quite a bit of ground work to do what u have done.

i tend to disagree with u on certain issues that u have mentioned in ur write up...

1. the first one being clearing forest cover for digging up nuclear fuel and for construction of nuclear power stations..... the same happens when coal is dug up from the ground and when coal powered power stations are built.(Moreover no government is going to allow nuclear fuel like uranium to lie on the ground just like that....they will dig it up i say why not use it for peaceful purposes for power generation)

2. Construction machines powered by electricity are making their foray into the automobile market and soon will be inducted by construction companies..anyways the greenhouse(GH) gases they emit are very nominal when viewed from a macro perspective....

3. millions of rural households across the world still depend on wood for their fuel needs..just imagine how much forest cover we can save if we r able to provide clean nuclear power to these households

@Karthick....i was quite surprised when u took sides cos when u present both sides of the coin the usual practice is to let the reader reach his own conclusions....if u insist on taking sides then i guess u would do better by providing counter arguments to the view u r opposing...

Ramanathan Palaniappan

By anonymous user, # 16. July 2008, 08:06:49

Anonymous said...


Sorry for this delayed response! Wanted to get back to you earlier, but could not do so. In fact, I had saved my response as a draft which I produce below...

Dude... Thanks for your response, and welcome to my blog.

Well, the point I have tried to make here is this- global warming is already a serious issue. And nuclear energy is related to global warming too. As in, it can help prevent additional global warming (if established). But the flip-side exists. This issue is Janus-faced, so to say. It may even seem to loom around as, how Ogden Nash says, a vicious circle.

Consequences will indeed be there... That is precisely why I said the issue is Janus-faced. I have made an attempt to look from both points of view, and well, I felt the negatives outweigh the positives. Hence the bottomline.

There won't be anything which can be classified as 'the' solution. So, any decision made will take quite a lot of flak.

We should not let our actions spell doom for the future. But, let us consider some facts too...

At present there are more than 400 nuclear reactors in operation around the world. If, as the nuclear industries worldwide suggest, nuclear power were to replace fossil fuels on a large scale, it would be necessary to build 2000 large, 1000-megawatt reactors. This proposal is less than practical. Furthermore, even if we decided today to replace all fossil-fuel-generated electricity with nuclear power, there would only be enough economically viable uranium to fuel the reactors for three to four years.

The true economies of the nuclear industry are never fully accounted for. The true cost of the industry's liability in the case of an accident, the cost of decommissioning all the existing reactors etc. will involve huge expenditure. And if I may add, the enormous expense involved in the storage of radioactive waste for a quarter of a million years; something which is not now included in the economic assessments of nuclear electricity.

It is said that nuclear power is emission-free. The truth is very different.

Much of the world's Uranium is enriched in the US and Australia. The enrichment facilities require the electrical output of two 1000-megawatt coal-fired plants, which emit large quantities of carbon dioxide, the gas responsible for 50per cent of global warming. There are reports which cite the release of CFCs (the production and release of which has been banned by the Montreal protocol) by the enrichment facilities. CFCs also contribute to global warming, 10,000 to 20,000 times more potent than CO2. CFCs are responsible for stratospheric ozone depletion too.

In fact, the nuclear fuel cycle utilises large quantities of fossil fuel at all of its stages - the mining and milling of uranium, the construction of the nuclear reactor and cooling towers, robotic decommissioning of the intensely radioactive reactor at the end of its 20 to 40-year operating lifetime, and transportation and long-term storage of massive quantities of radioactive waste.

Nuclear power is therefore not green and it is certainly not clean. Nuclear reactors consistently release millions of curies of radioactive isotopes into the air and water each year. These releases are unregulated because the nuclear industry considers these particular radioactive elements to be biologically inconsequential. This is not so.

These unregulated isotopes include the noble gases krypton, xenon and argon, which are fat-soluble and if inhaled by persons living near a nuclear reactor, are absorbed through the lungs, migrating to the fatty tissues of the body, including the abdominal fat pad and upper thighs, near the reproductive organs. These radioactive elements, which emit high-energy gamma radiation, can mutate the genes in the eggs and sperm and cause genetic disease.

Tritium, another biologically significant gas, is also routinely emitted from nuclear reactors. Tritium is composed of three atoms of hydrogen, which combine with oxygen, forming radioactive water, which is absorbed through the skin, lungs and digestive system. It is incorporated into the DNA molecule, where it is mutagenic.

You may say, I have literally taken a plunge into Nuclear Chemistry, but well, these are facts too. Which you just cannot overlook, dude. And coming to the chemistry again (sorry, if the Chemistry part bugs u..!); Iodine-131, Strontium-90, Cesium-137 and Plutonium-239 are some of the most dangerous elements that are produced in nuclear reactors. May be we do have or we will develop the technology to try and avoid/suppress these emissions et cetra; but the facts do cut a sorry figure.

I welcome you to discuss this...


By Karthik.S, # 7. September 2008, 15:06:46



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"Santa" Akshat comes to town!

"Santa" Akshat comes to town!
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