by Arvin Charles
Imagine if you stumble upon a metal ping-pong ball one day. A very dense ball that feels way heavier than it looks and probably needs to be handled with a rather thick pair of gloves. Now imagine, that the tiny ball in the palm of your hand, powers everything that requires electricity in your entire lifetime from your laptop, smartphone, lights, to even your hybrid car. This may sound like something straight from the next sci-fi movie but it is in fact none other than the power of nuclear energy. According to the Pioneer, Uranium, the size of a golf ball, can produce a staggering amount of energy equivalent to 56 tanker trucks of natural gas, 800 bags the size of elephants or a renewable battery as tall as 16 super skyscraper buildings stacked upon each other. Statistics from the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) confirms that 30 countries have already adopted nuclear energy as one of their main sources of electricity with France spearheading by generating over 76% of their electrical power from nuclear power plants. The question is, should more countries emulate this move and set up nuclear power plants throughout the globe, thrusting us into another nuclear age or will that bring about catastrophic outcomes?
Is nuclear energy the way forward?
Based on a report by the Independent in 2015, biologists have warned that in order to combat exponential emissions of carbon dioxide and further exacerbation of global warming, nuclear energy must be included in the world’s “energy mix” alongside other sustainable resources namely solar and wind energy. An interesting opinion is that the usage of nuclear power would actually play a cardinal part in protecting and preserving wildlife in the future. With the ever increasing energy demand following the steady rise in
the world’s population, large areas of land will be utilized to erect power plants and mines. A fitting example of this is the loss of habitat due to the construction of hydroelectric dams which tends to flood surrounding land, forcing the migration of wildlife species and also cuts of the migration routes of certain fish. To put a figure on this phenomenon, approximately 87% of the bird populace in South America has been lost on reservoir islands based on a study by the University of Stirling in Scotland. The effect is similar with wind farms which produce zero emission of greenhouse gases but take up acres of land.
Conversely, being the densest in energy, nuclear power plants do not require vast chunks of land compared to wind farms, solar arrays and coal mines. They are very compact and also provide a continuous source of energy compared to wind farms which only operate depending on the unpredictable force of nature. To put this on the scale of things, the space needed to generate electricity for a third of America purely on nuclear energy is 9 times smaller than solar power arrays. Nuclear power plants also shut down less frequently only for refueling and requires lower maintenance.
In the long run, nuclear energy produces affordable electricity. It is undeniable that building a power plant requires high capital cost. Thousands of workers are needed to construct concrete mega structures and state-of-the-art cooling, ventilating and safety systems have to be incorporated to reduce any risk of a meltdown. However, the running costs of a typical nuclear plant is relatively low. On top of that, these reactors can last for decades depending on the amount of nuclear fuel and design.
Public Perspective on Nuclear Power.
With all that being said, the ardour for a shift to this power source is generally low across the globe mainly due to fear of more colossal meltdown disasters. In contrast with the views of biologists that nuclear plants are the key to the survival of wildlife, it is often associated with environmental destruction in the public eye. Opponents of nuclear energy believe that constructing nuclear power plants will solely pose a hazard to people which tips the balance regardless how efficient nuclear power is, as compared to numerous other alternative sources. Although nuclear meltdowns are comparatively infrequent, the magnitude of the aftermath of these disasters will most certainly spell devastating implications that will last throughout a generation.
Recall the Fukushima Daiichi disaster in 2011, the destruction of the nuclear power plant that originated from an unforeseen source, a massive earthquake followed by a tsunami. Radioactive Cesium with a half-life of 30 years leaked into the Pacific Ocean and consequently was detected in Japanese food products including spinach, beef and freshwater fish within 200 miles from the meltdown region. A research journal published by Global Research indicated a sharp rise in the number of thyroid cancer cases, destroying the lives of 370,000 innocent children in Fukushima by spring 2015. At the end of the day, the risk of any power plant to malfunction is present and there will most definitely be casualties and this probability will grow with the number of nuclear plants around the world. Greenpeace, an organization which fights against the use of nuclear power and the closure of existing plants claims that there will be a Chernobyl-sized catastrophe once every decade. The question is, is it really humane to put so many lives at risk to provide a better world for generations to come?
In addition, waste production is also associated as another problem with nuclear energy. Radioactive fuel in these reactors decay to produce other radioactive materials. Hence, an accumulation of waste will occur and like all waste, it has to be disposed somewhere.
The World Nuclear Association reported that a very low percentage of high level waste can be extracted to be recycled as fuel and the rest of this is dumped underground. A good example would be America’s plan to deposit all their nuclear waste around the country in one spot – Yucca Mountain, a deep underground hole expected to hold almost 10,000 years’ worth of radioactive waste. However, it still remains a half-dug hole due to legal and technical obstacles. This is yet another debatable move as many environmentalists grill the proponents about the consequence of an earthquake in the Yucca Mountain region or if the deposited radioactive waste leaks into underground water channels which will bring drastic implications to the environment. The effort was brought to a halt by President Obama, however, Donald Trump’s advisors are eyeing a revival of the project after his arrival in Washington according to Bloomberg.
Ultimately, nuclear energy seems like a viable alternative as a non-polluting resource of clean energy. That being said, as engineers and leaders of science, we need to fully understand the dangers that come with this great source of power and thread cautiously when dealing with it. We should always bear in mind the lessons learnt from the Chernobyl accident, where incompetent plant operators in their nescience of nuclear engineering, disregarded regulations to accelerate testing. To quote Uncle Ben, “with great power, comes great responsibility’.