The long-standing conflicts over nuclear power and the risks of radiation exposure are nothing new – in fact, the debate over the damaged Fukushima Dai-Ichi plant in Japan are similar to arguments happening between scientists, governmental agencies and the public for decades. With the entire northern hemisphere now being polluted daily with trace levels of radioactive isotopes, contaminating everything from water to food and air, it's time to pull the plug on this dangerous form of energy.
Historian Jacob Hamblin is the author of the 2008 book, “Poison in the Well: Radioactive Waste in the Oceans at the Dawn of the Nuclear Age.” He specializes in the history of the Cold War era, with a particular focus on environmental sciences and the history of nuclear issues.
“Science without history is just ignorance,” Hamblin said. “Much of the current media debate about the safety of nuclear power and radiation exposure is an echo of conflicts going on since the dawn of the nuclear era.”
Hamblin said nuclear scientists have long decried public concerns over radiation exposure and the safety of nuclear power plants. Yet he says these same issues continue to cause conflict between anti-nuclear activists, scientists and pro-nuclear advocates.
“In the 1950s, the response to the public was that it was irrational and that its fears about nuclear energy were based on emotion,” Hamblin said. “I don’t believe the public is irrational, but I do believe that the nuclear industry has failed to address some key issues, namely the issue of nuclear waste disposal and the risk of radiation exposure and contamination when something like Fukushima occurs.”
Clear Disadvantages of Nuclear Energy
- The problem of radioactive waste is still an unsolved one. The waste from nuclear energy is extremely dangerous and it has to be carefully looked after for several thousand years (10'000 years according to United States Environmental Protection Agency standards).
- High risks: Despite a generally high security standard, accidents can still happen. It is technically impossible to build a plant with 100% security. A small probability of failure will always last. The consequences of an accident would be absolutely devastating both for human being as for the nature (see here , here or here ). The more nuclear power plants (and nuclear waste storage shelters) are built, the higher is the probability of a disastrous failure somewhere in the world.
- Nuclear power plants as well as nuclear waste could be preferred targets for terrorist attacks. No atomic energy plant in the world could withstand an attack similar to 9/11 in Yew York. Such a terrorist act would have catastrophic effects for the whole world. There is no method to get rid of the radioactivity of the waste or speed up the rate of decay. The waste must be sealed and buried in a safe location to prevent contamination of the environment and other people. Currently, there are no suitable locations that provide a permanent storage site for nuclear waste.
- During the operation of nuclear power plants, radioactive waste is produced, which in turn can be used for the production of nuclear weapons. In addition, the same know-how used to design nuclear power plants can to a certain extent be used to build nuclear weapons (nuclear proliferation).
- The energy source for nuclear energy is Uranium. Uranium is a scarce resource, its supply is estimated to last only for the next 30 to 60 years depending on the actual demand. Uranium, the source of energy for nuclear power, is available on earth only in limited quantities. Uranium is being «consumed» (i.e. converted) during the operation of the nuclear power plant so it won't be available any more for future generations which again contradicts the principle of sustainability.
- The time frame needed for formalities, planning and building of a new nuclear power generation plant is in the range of 20 to 30 years in the western democracies. In other words: It is an illusion to build new nuclear power plants in a short time.
- Radioactive isotopes, which are released from every nuclear reactor in the world, cause debilitating disease and deformities affecting several generations DNA. Both the nuclear waste as well as retired nuclear plants are a life-threatening legacy for literally hundreds of future generations. It flagrantly contradicts with the thoughts of sustainability if future generations have to deal with dangerous waste generated from preceding generations.
Hamblin’s book tells the history of how policy decisions, scientific conflicts and public relations strategies were employed from the end of World War II through the blossoming environmental movement of the 1970s. By avoiding simplistic pro-or-con arguments, Hamblin said his goal was to research how and why decisions are made.
“You can talk to scientists from a variety of backgrounds and hear five different true statements about nuclear power, and each of them will lead you to different conclusions,” Hamblin said. “My point is not that nuclear power is bad, because I don’t necessarily believe that, but that the public is torn on these issues because there are a variety of ways to interpret the science.”
In his book, Hamblin gives the example of tests being done by the U.S. military in the 1950s. Nuclear bombs were detonated over the Pacific Ocean, and oceanographers then studied how radioactivity circulated in the ocean and how much it was diluted.
“Some oceanographers and radiation physicists tested the water and found that indeed, the ocean seemed to have diluted the radiation and there was little to no risk,” Hamblin said. “Then another batch of scientists came out and they started testing the plants and fish and other sea life and they found higher levels of radiation absorption in those things that we eat.”
Hamblin’s cautionary tale is that unanswered questions regarding nuclear energy need to be addressed with the public, and not in a dismissive way. In addition, he believes that there are lessons that can be learned from history.
“Just over 40 years ago, people thought storing nuclear waste in ocean trenches was a good idea, until the discovery of plate tectonics,” he said. “In the 1950s, safety levels of radiation exposure to reproductive organs were based on the assumption that most people were done having children by the age of 30.”
“My point is that the science is often informed by the culture and the politics and the technology of the time – and those things are always shifting. We need to consider what we want our energy legacy to be, and how we as a society plan to deal with the aftermath of whatever we choose.”
Alternatives to Nuclear Power
Coal is the most abundant fossil fuel. It is found throughout the world and current proven reserves are sufficient for at least 300 years of exploitation. Although coal is cheap, it is dangerous to mine (thousands of miners die every year all over the world) and is bulky and expensive to transport. Because coal has relatively low energy content for its weight, a lot of it is required to produce a given amount of electricity. For example, A 1000 MW coal power station requires about 8,600,000 kg of coal per day. However, there are global disasters there can ever take place from a breakdown of a coal plant.
Natural Gas reserves are intermediate between Coal and Oil. It is currently the most favoured fuel source for new electricity production with the USA. Natural gas combined-cycle
generators can reach 60% efficiency for converting heat energy into electricity. Natural gas also produces 40 -50 % fewer CO2 emissions for the same amount of electricity generated as Coal. However the price of Natural Gas is steadily rising and the costs associated with sequestration of the generated CO2 are not yet included in the price of electricity passed on the consumer.
These are technologies that concentrate sunlight to produce intense heat or light. Many significant technology hurdles have been overcome through ingenious design and the use of advanced materials. Nevertheless despite many years of effort these technologies produce electricity at far higher cost than coal-based production. The exceptions are when these are located in sunlight rich regions with poor access of Fossil Fuels or where the full cost of Fossil Fuels are passed on to the consumer.
PhotoVoltaic systems convert sunlight directly into electricity by utilizing the Quantum-Mechanical properties of light. There has been great progress at both increasing the efficiency of solar cells for use in concentrator systems
and in decreasing the cost of large array converters
. The current world market for PhotoVoltaics is around 1.2 GW of peak power per year and is growing at an annualized rate of 30% per year. This amounts to some 1 billion-kilowatt-hours of electricity production once the 10% duty factor of photo-voltaic systems are taken into account. The current world consumption of electricity is around 13,000 billion kilowatt hours per year and is projected to rise to 23,000 billion kilo-watt hours per year by 2025.
energy relies on converting heat trapped underground to generate useful power. In most cases this means converting the heat to electricity via the same techniques employed by Fossil Fuel power stations. There are in addition several locations in the world where Geothermal energy is also used to provide district heating.
It is classed as a renewable resources although in some locations Geothermal energy consumes a region of heat trapped in the Earth's crust. Once consumed, the resource is exhausted. Other locations continuously generate heat from a large local Uranium concentration. There are some very large reserves of heat and these have been exploited in different parts of the world.
Geothermal has the advantage over Solar power of being available 24 hours a day.
Hydrogen is a completely clean fuel but it must be made from some other energy source. As a fuel, Hydrogen has many benefits. It can be consumed in a Fuel Cell to make electricity very efficiently and produces only water as emissions. Three kg of Hydrogen is expected to provide a car a driving range of 400 km. The main difficulty with using hydrogen as a transportation fuel is the ability to cheaply distribute and store it
. However great progress is being made in this field. For example in January 2005, General Motors unveiled a concept car
with 5 kg of Hydrogen storage capacity and which provided a driving range of 500 km.
The supporters of all the energy sources described here have answers to problems ascribed to them. However, one thing remains certain on the energy source we decide as a collective. As humanity draws closer and closer to global disasters, that source of energy we choose must be clean, non-polluting, non-toxic and independently sustainable for every country on earth. That energy awaits us and its adoption will free humanity in ways never thought possible.