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The role electricity plays in our lives by enhancing our productivity, comfort, safety, health, and economy is obvious. We live with the benefits of electricity every day. So much so that we take it for granted that whenever we plug our gadgets into the wall socket, the power will be there. While most people give little thought to where electricity comes from, there are many different ways to generate electricity – including coal, oil, gas, hydroelectric, nuclear, and solar. Each option inherits certain advantages that merit consideration whenever there is a need for a new power plant. Nuclear generated electricity is unique in that it inherently addresses many of the short-comings of the other means for power generation. The use of nuclear power provides answers for many problems in the areas of the environment, safety, economics, reliability, sustainability, and even waste
The environmental impact of any power generation station can be measured by quantifying the burden of fuel delivery, emissions of byproducts and wastes and the potential impact on the lives (human or otherwise) of those living nearby.
Like fossil fuels, the nuclear fuel raw materials come from the Earth. Uranium, the primary fuel material, is mined. The environmental impact of mining is well know; however, the advantage of nuclear power comes from the amount of power that comes from a small amount of uranium. The power from one kilogram of uranium is approximately equivalent to 100,000 kilograms of oil; therefore, as a function of power consumption, very little uranium needs to be removed from the ground; hence, the environmental impact of uranium mines is much less compared with mining and drilling for fossil fuels.
Unlike oil or gas, nuclear fuel is solid; hence, nuclear fuel is immune to the environment problems posed by spillage during transportation to a power plant. Unused nuclear fuel is only slightly more radioactive that naturally occurring underground. Fuel delivery casks are designed with a high margin of safety to ensure that even in the event of a transportation accident, the environment remains free of contamination from the nuclear fuel.
To learn more about how nuclear fuel is created, view the slide show below.
In contrast to fossil fuel plants (coal, oil and gas), nuclear power plants do not produce any carbon dioxide or sulfur emissions, which are major contributors to the greenhouse effect and acid rain, respectively. According to the Nuclear Energy Institute, U.S. nuclear power plants prevent 5.1 million tons of sulfur dioxide, 2.4 million tons of nitrogen oxide, and 164 million metric tons of carbon from entering the earth’s atmosphere each year.
Nuclear power reactors do contribute a measurable increase in radiation to the environment around a nuclear power plant. However, this increase is relatively small compared to natural background radiation, and is less than the radioactivity released from a typical coal plant. Even with this increase in radiation, most employees of nuclear power plants receive exposures typically of workers in all occupations. In addition, no evidence exists that show that small increases in radiation exposure having negative health effects.
Impact on Local Habitat:
Because nuclear power plants are relatively self-sufficient, plant siting is more amenable to environmental concerns. Oil and gas plants must be sited close to major pipelines and hydroelectric plants must be sited on rivers. Impact to wildlife habitat and municipalities may have to be compromised in order to site these type of plants. For example, public outrage over fish kills from hydroelectric power plants have limited new plant construction and policy makers are seriously considering the removal of existing dams around the United States. Meanwhile, strict siting regulation ensures that nuclear power plants have minimal impact to their surrounding areas.
The most pressing environmental concern facing the nuclear industry is the issue of waste disposal. All processes produce waste. Nuclear waste from a power plant is unique in that it can be highly radioactive. While highly radioactive waste is hazardous to all living beings, nuclear fuel is amenable to containment, treatment, reduction and reprocessing (recycling). Processes have been developed to separate reusable fuel and the highly radioactive elements from used nuclear fuel. The waste products can then be made into a glass or ceramic waste pellet for disposal. The hazard associated with this pellet has a expected duration of about 100 years. Considering that chemical hazards maintain their nature indefinitely, this waste form may be preferable. Currently, such a waste treatment process is not being utilized in the United States because of political resistance; however, research continues to find new solutions to this problem.
Economics and Reliability:
Nuclear power plants are one of the most economical forms of energy production. Nuclear fuel costs (as a function of power generation potential) represent only a fraction of the cost of fossil fuels. Including capital and non-fuel operating costs, the cost of operating a nuclear power plant is roughly equivalent to fossil fuels. Recently, the average electricity production cost for nuclear energy was recognized as the cheapest source of electricity. In 1999, the average cost of power generation by nuclear plants was 1.83 cents per kilowatt-hour, for coal-fired plants 2.07 cents, for oil 3.24 cents, and for gas 3.52 cents. Costs for solar and wind are still well beyond that considered to be competitive to the public.
The cost of regulation and industry oversight of nuclear power generation is substantially more than that of other power generation sources; however, improvements in reliability and operational and maintenance efficiencies have contributed to reducing those costs. Currently, nuclear power plant capacity factors average over 75%. This is competitive with those of fossil fired plants. Most plants are designed to operate in a base load configuration; that is, they run at full power regardless of the demand on electricity. Nuclear power plants are particularly well suited for this purpose since they are designed to produce large quantities of power and can sustain operation for up to two years without refueling.
The future of civilization will depend upon the indefinite supply of electricity. Clearly, there is a limit to the supply of fossil fuels. The most optimistic estimates have fossil fuel lasting no more than 100 years; however, they may become economically undesirable in much less time. Obviously wind, solar, and renewable energy sources (such as ethanol) can sustain our world with power indefinitely. However, the power generation potential from even a small amount of uranium is so great, even nuclear fuel can be included on this list. In the right configuration, nuclear power can provide electricity for generations. The right configuration is in the “Breeder Reactor.” The design of the breeder reactor is such that even as fuel is consumed, new fuel is created as a byproduct. Only a few breeder reactor plants have been built. Since plutonium – a material used in nuclear weapons – is created in these plants, governments have been hesitant to allow their construction. Nonetheless, applying the breeder concept can reduce fuel prices so low that even the extraction of uranium from the worlds oceans would not be an overly expensive endeavor. In an article printed in the American Journal of Physics (vol. 51, Jan. 1983, B. Cohen), there is enough uranium in all the worlds oceans and the earths crust under the oceans to last 5 billion years (assuming that 6500 metric tons of uranium is removed annually). For all practical purposes, this is a reliable power source.
Center for Nuclear Science and Technology Information of the American Nuclear Society
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