Nuclear Power? Yes Please!

By Ross Uehara-Tilton

In a time when increased dependency on fossil fuels is of great concern, especially given the ongoing conflicts in oil-producing countries, it is ever more important that engineers around the globe focus their efforts on developing sustainable, environmentally friendly power. The energy challenges facing today’s engineers will effect everyone. These engineers and scientists are given the task of developing alternative sources of energy before the world’s reserves run out. Many sources of alternative energy have been studied, such as wind turbines, photovoltaic panel arrays and geothermal energy, but energy generated through nuclear reactions is the most safe, cost effective and environmentally friendly source of energy for the world’s expanding population.

A major sticking point in the debate over nuclear energy is centralized around the potential damage that can be caused to the public and the environment. Opponents of nuclear energy assert that the risks involved with nuclear power generation outweigh the benefits that nuclear energy can provide. The recent nuclear disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in the towns of Okuma and Futaba in Fukushima Prefecture, Japan opened the worlds eyes to the potential damages that a nuclear meltdown can cause.

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), the government-backed regulatory body for the nuclear industry has stated that properly operating nuclear power plants present very little health risk to the public. All nuclear power generating plants in the United States are required to have an inspector from the NRC on staff at all times the reactors are operating. The sole job of these inspectors is to ensure that NRC regulations and procedures are being followed. The average person in the United States is exposed to about 300 millirems (mrems) per year from natural sources (the sun). A person living within 50 miles of a nuclear power plant might be exposed to an extra .01 mrems of radiation a year. Significant health risks occur at exposure to more than 50 rems (50,000 mrems) of radiation at any one time, however, these risks are rarely fatal. Fatal radiation exposure occurs near 1,000 rems, which is 100,000,000 times more radiation than a person living within 50 miles of a nuclear plant would be exposed to.

In 2008, the United States Department of Energy (DOE) published a web page answering some frequently asked questions about nuclear energy. The DOE noted that there have been no nuclear radiation-related injuries or deaths in the United States since nuclear power was first produced in 1957. Only four fatal incidents have occurred at nuclear energy plants in the United States, but each was a result of electrocution, not as a result of radiation poisoning. Although there have been radiation-related deaths in catastrophic events such as those in at Chernobyl and Fukushima Daiichi, these events were a result of poor planning or human error. The history of nuclear energy production in the United States is testimony to the fact that nuclear power does not need to be dangerous.

Electricity was generated by the chain reaction produced by nuclear fission at the EBR-1 experimental station near Arco, Idaho. This very first reaction produced about 100 Kilowatts (kW) of electricity, enough to power 1,000 hundred watt light bulbs (however, the initial test only consisted of four light bulbs). In contrast, current technology can produce up to one Gigawatt (one million kW) of electricity. This amount is enough to power close to a million homes. Engineers, such as those at Toshiba, are in the process of developing hot tub-sized reactors, each of which could easily power around 20 homes.

There are 134 nuclear power units operating in the United States, with two units currently in construction. A recent report in the Victoria Advocate recounted the success of the country’s newest reactor, the South Texas Project (STP), located near Bay City, Texas. At an age of 23 years, the reactor is the country’s newest nuclear power production facility. The facility at STP is the poster child of nuclear reactors, exceeding engineers’ expectations in terms of power output. The industry average capacity factor, a measurement of nuclear power output, is 90.5%. The STP reactor average capacity factor for the last three years is 98.87%. This translates to a cost of 1.356 cents per kW-hour, making the nuclear power generated from the STP the cheapest in the nation. In 2010, the STP was named to the list of America’s Safest Companies by Environmental Health and Safety Today. Furthermore, the STP plant received the B. Ralph Silva Best of the Best Award three times, which is considered to be the most prestigious award in the nuclear power industry. In the 23 years that the STP reactors have been in operation, the plant has only experienced one automatic shutdown, that was caused by a “non-safety related equipment failure,” which had no potential to cause harm to humans or the environment. The STP proves that nuclear power is a viable energy source that can be safely harnessed and utilized for long term energy production.

Nolan E. Hertel, Ph.D., a professor of Nuclear and Radiological Engineering at the Georgia Institute of technology, provides compelling statistics about the costs of nuclear power. Dr. Hertel asserts that the average cost of producing electricity with oil is 10.2 cents per kW-hour, 6.7 cents per kW-hour with natural gas, 2.4 cents per kW-hour with coal, and just 1.7 cents per kW-hour for nuclear energy. Furhermore, nuclear energy can continue to provide electricity for long after the earth’s oil, natural gas and coal reserves have become scarce. Other alternative energies, such as wind farms and solar arrays, have a high capital investment to energy output ratio.

Finally, nuclear energy is much more environmentally friendly than other energy sources. Nuclear power generation emits absolutely no carbon dioxide. The Nuclear Energy Institute estimates that fossil fuel- powered electricity plants emit about 681 million metric tons of greenhouse gases and carbon dioxide into the air each year. If the amount of electricity produced at these fossil fuel plants was instead produced at nuclear power plants, it would be the equivalent of taking 96% of the cars in America off the road.

Opponents of nuclear energy argue that nuclear waste harms the environment. Nuclear fuel, if released directly into the environment, would cause widespread damage to the earth’s fragile ecosystems. However, nuclear fuel can be used and reused many times. Each cycle of nuclear fission reaction produces a large amount of energy, and creates a chain reaction. When this chain reaction ends, another chain reaction can be initiated, and the fuel can easily be reused until majority of the energy in the reaction is spent. At this point, the nuclear fuel becomes nuclear waste, and must be disposed of. The radioactive waste must be stabilized, so that no more reactions can occur. Unfortunately, this stabilization process causes the atoms of radiation to decay very slowly, taking up to a million years to fully degrade. Scientists agree that radioactive waste should be kept above ground for several years so that radiation levels can be monitored and stabilized. There are several solutions for disposing of decaying radioactive waste, including discharging the waste into space. Another attractive option for disposal is to store the material in subterranean vaults encased in concrete and lead. This would prevent the waste from leeching into the environment, and keep the waste far away from the general population. A third solution for waste disposal would be to store the waste in sub-sea sites below the abyssal plane. The waste would eventually be drawn towards the earth’s core and essentially eliminated.

Nuclear energy is a highly contested form of alternative energy. However, one cannot deny that the electricity generated from nuclear power plants costs significantly less money to produce. Nuclear power is also more environmentally friendly in terms of its effects on the ozone layer by way of greenhouse gas emissions. The main road block to nuclear energy is the risk involved in nuclear fission processes, but nuclear power plants in the United States have shown that nuclear energy can be safe if generated in well planned facilities which have fail safe mechanisms in place to account for human error. In a world where fossil fuel supplies are running low, we must put the quest for alternative energy at the forefront of research and engineering. Electricity generated through nuclear means is much safer, more cost effective and environmentally friendly than all of the other sources of alternative energy that are being researched, and certainly better than the fossil fuel plants that are producing majority of our energy today.

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