Does nuclear power have a bright future?

Nuclear power has always been, to me, the most intriguing source of power. In commercial reactors throughout the world, energy released from fission reactions is extracted and used in the form of heat to heat fluid in a power cycle such as a Rankine cycle, where the working fluid is water, to eventually generate electricity. In my studies of nuclear power, it seems like there are many advantages to its use, including low emissions of green house gases (CO2), and it is a highly efficient source of power. One thing that amazed me to find out was that a few small pellets of Uranium that can fit into your hand are capable of providing as much or more electricity than a ton of coal with fewer emissions and higher efficiency. It almost seems like the perfect source for creating energy, yet according to data for 2006, it only accounts for about 1/5 of US and world electric consumption, while in the US coal plants account for about half of the electric consumption.

Why might this be? Well, I guess a number of factors are at play, including size, scale, and cost of each type of power plant (Nuclear can be more expensive due to containment), maybe proliferation concerns, as well as national security issues. While congressional republicans tend to favor the use, democrats seem to be split on the issue, with some in favor of use calling it a potential renewable energy source, and others not wanting to consider it that because of certain environmental concerns. The current presidential administration’s view on that of Nuclear power is one that seems to favor its use. According to an article in US News, the administration’s Energy secretary, Steven Chu, stated to Congress in 2009 “I believe in nuclear power as a central part of our energy mix.” According to an excerpt from the Obama-Biden energy plan in 2009, “Nuclear power represents more than 70 percent of our non-carbon generated electricity. It is unlikely that we can meet our aggressive climate goals if we eliminate nuclear power as an option. However, before an expansion of nuclear power is considered, key issues must be addressed including: security of nuclear fuel and waste, waste storage, and proliferation.” It seems that in order to meet the goals to reduce climate change, yet still meet our energy demands, nuclear power should not be dismissed, but we must address certain concerns with this power source.

So what is the number 1 issue associated with this power source? Surprisingly, it is actually handling waste. The waste and byproducts associated with nuclear power can have very harmful adverse effects on the environment. There does not seem to exist a long term solution for handling waste as of now. This brings me to Yucca Mountain, located in Nevada, which is a proposed site for a large scale waste repository. Yucca Mountain is a very controversial issue associated with the handling of Nuclear Waste. According to a statement by President Obama, “I believe a better short-term solution is to store nuclear waste on-site at the reactors where it is produced, or at a designated facility in the state where it is produced, until we find a safe, long-term disposal solution that is based on sound science.” Furthermore, according to another article by US News, “the Yucca Mountain program will be scaled back to those costs necessary to answer inquiries from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), while the administration devises a new strategy toward nuclear waste disposal.” It seems that the current administration’s view on the subject is that it is necessary to find safer short-term alternatives that do not require a large repository, until a sound long term alternative for waste handling can be devised.

Nuclear power is an interesting power source with what looks to be a bright future. Other applications of nuclear power seem to include use on naval vessels, and as a potential use for propulsion of space craft. In my opinion, I feel that it would be a mistake to reduce its usage, or even completely do away with it as an energy source. I agree with the current administration; if we intend to meet our climate goals and our power needs, it needs to be an important option, and more money and research needs to be put towards the matter to find suitable long-term waste handling options. Other countries, including France, use nuclear power to cover a large portion of their electrical consumption. Finally, I think that nuclear power is a great source of energy, but adequate measures need to be taken to address security and environmental waste issues.

Sources:

http://www.usnews.com/news/energy/articles/2009/03/27/gauging-the-prospects-for-nuclear-power-in-the-obama-era.html

http://www.usnews.com/articles/news/energy/2009/03/16/lessons-from-the-yucca-mountain-nuclear-waste-storage-debate.html

http://www.world-nuclear-news.org/newsarticle.aspx?id=24743

http://www.lvrj.com/opinion/7598337.html

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “Does nuclear power have a bright future?

  1. Alex

    The political treatment of Yucca Mountain continues to be an outright disaster. As you mentioned, waste management is a huge issue in the nuclear fuel cycle, so the continued use of nuclear energy really demands that we establish a permanent storage solution. Yucca Mountain looks to be dead in the water due to the NIMBY attitude of certain politicians, despite the decades of work already invested in it, so we can safely assume that a comparable storage solution is, at best, decades away. Combine this with the Obama Administration’s support of the development of next generation reactors, and it looks like we better stop calling the current waste storage solutions “temporary.”

  2. fannydufrois

    As a French exchange student, I am really glad that you wrote an article about nuclear power. As you know, in France almost 80% of our electricity comes from nuclear energy. For more than 50 years we have had some great debates about nuclear power. And even if some drawbacks of this kind of energy were pointed out, France decided to use this power a lot. One of the most important reasons was that contrary to the USA, we do not have any source of oil in France. So if we wanted to be independent from emirates countries, it was necessary for us to find a different source of power.

    I know that people think that nuclear energy could be very risky and that is one of the highest reasons why they do not want to develop it in their own country. Since Chernobyl (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chernobyl_disaster), there were no other huge problems. Moreover this big catastrophe was not really considered as a real nuclear problem. We should know that radioactivity is a natural phenomena that occurs everywhere in our world and even human are radioactive. As a result it should not scare people that much. In any kind of energy plants, there are risky situations and the problem is more to know if we consider that the risk is weak enough and that we can accept it. Some of my friends are afraid that terrorist groups use it against us. However we should consider that anyone can create a small reactor that can enrich uranium in his own home. What I want to say is that this is sure, it could be risky to research more and more about this energy but we should not let us influenced by other and think that it is too dangerous. Living is risky too…

    As you explained in your post, one of the most important problems of nuclear power to consider is probably nuclear waste. We do not really know what we should do with them. Some do not pollute, some have a really low radioactivity that can disappear with time. But some possess a very high radioactivity. One of the solutions purposed was burying them because there is not so much nuclear waste. I just have some French statistics (sorry ) but I know that a family consumes five tons of waste a year and only less than 10g of nuclear waste. Moreover the cost of burying them is already included in the price, so it won’t be an economical matter.

    I hope that I convinced some of you about this “wonderful” source of energy or at least explained why I consider it as a great option even for the United States. Please excuse my English writing and I hope that you understood everything that I wrote.Smb227, I really liked your article by the way.

  3. smf928

    It’s good to see that we’re on common grounds thus far. I wanted to offer a little information and support for the use of subterranean storage technology and offer an explanation for the phase out of Yucca Mountain.

    As you have pointed out, the issues of the “polluter pays” and “not-in-my-backyard” attitudes are forcing delays and at times the death of reversed-mining or subterranean storage of highly radioactive wastes. Perhaps the biggest problem with the coupling of technology and policy is proper education of the technology and quantification of risk, a science that few consider.

    The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) estimated in 2007 that the production of highly radioactive waste was 10,000 metric tons per year. Due to the nature of the radioactive material, disposal options for such large quantities of waste are limited. Though methods such as ocean/seabed, space disposal, and reprocessing have been explored, geologic repositories still are our best option for disposal.

    There are many safety features employed in underground storage of nuclear waste. First, the radionuclides are immobilized in a glass-like matrix which is placed in a stainless-steel container filled with an inert gas such as nitrogen. Second, a metallic jacket of titanium alloy is welded around the vitrified waste. Third, a sorptive material such as bentonite is backfilled into the container. Finally, all of the packing material is surrounded by a thick concrete cask. In addition to this packing, the casks are buried in geologically stable rock formations between 300-1500 meters underground, well away from potential resources or water-tables. The combination of this storage technique amounts to significant resistance to the release of radioactive materials into the biosphere.

    The success of this technology is supported by numerous observable phenomena as well as geological examples. For instance, a naturally occurring nuclear fission of concentrated uranium occurred nearly 2 billion years ago near Oklo, Gabon. Even though the surrounding material was sandstone, the worst material for storage due to its high porosity and low adsorbance, nuclear material traveled only a few meters. Therefore, if the storage sites chosen were composed of clays or other small pore, highly adsorptive, and reducing environments, we should expect the diffusion of radioactive material to be on the order of centimeters to meters during their “active” life.

    Opposition to subterranean storage has been due to the desire to recover the waste as technology to recycle improves and to produce a zero risk solution. If the waste is stored underground, the only obstacle to recovery is time, as digging out this material could take months if properly stored. The real issue, as I pointed out earlier, is the zero risk solution. The main problem is convincing the public that there is a difference between zero risk and acceptable risk. Everything has some measurable amount of risk. When we determine how “safe” something is, we have to look at its risk level according to some socially accepted value. Conservative estimates show that fatality risks for geological repositories are approximately 1 in 1-100 million years. To give some perspective, this risk level is the same if not 100 times lower than being struck by lightning. Though geological repositories will never reach zero risk, their level of risk is well below commonly accepted levels.

    Having said all of this in support of underground storage, recent studies have shown that the Yucca Mountain site is in a geographically active site as well as surrounded by oxidative formations which may lead to faster diffusing conditions. Therefore the decision to shut down the facility may have avoided leakage due to poor siting.

    To summarize this rather dense response, underground storage is currently the most technologically sound way to store radioactive waste. Not only can the multi-layered safety approach keep the waste contained on geologic time-scales, but risk analysis shows this process to be more acceptable than many modern hazards, either voluntary or involuntary, accepted by the human population. Finally, while the Yucca Mountain facility may have technical problems which necessitate its closure, the idea of underground storage of radioactive waste should press on and other locations should be identified.

    Sources:

    Durant D. Responsible Action and Nuclear Waste Disposal. Technology in Society. 2009; 31:150-157.

    Grambow B. Mobile Fission and Activation Products in Nuclear Waste Disposal. Journal of Contaminant Hydrology. 2008; 102:180-186.

    Modarres M. Risk Analysis in Engineering: Techniques, Tools, and Trends. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press; 2006.

    Pickard WF. Finessing the Fuel: Revisiting the Challenge of Radioactive Waste Disposal. Energy Policy. 2010; 38:709-714.

    Rogers KA. Fire in the Hole: A Review of National Spent Nuclear Fuel Disposal Policy. Progress in Nuclear Energy. 2009; 51:281-289.

    Van Loon AJ. Reversed Mining and Reversed-Reversed Mining: the Irrational Context of Geological Disposal of Nuclear Waste. Earth-Science Reviews. 2000; 50:269-276.

    • smf928

      So I wanted to follow up since my links didn’t work. If you want to know more about country-by-country waste disposal plans and policy groups, look at the Fire in the Hole article by Rogers. Also, the comment about Yucca Mountain being in a geologically active site is from the Pickard article.

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