Global Warming is the projected increase in the mean temperature of the Earth. The increase is “very likely due to the observed increase in anthropogenic greenhouse gas concentrations” (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 2007). This means that the global warming we experience today is due to the increase in release of the greenhouse gases due to man’s activity on Earth. What these greenhouse gases do is trap the heat from the sun, preventing its release into space. This is akin to a car with windows rolled up parked for a very long time under the sun. Global Warming can have any myriad of effects, from mass extinction to sea level rise to increased frequency of extreme weather phenomena like hurricanes.
Today, nearly everyone is familiar with the terms “Global Warming”. Everyone has heard of it in one way or another, whether it is from Al Gore’s much publicized documentary “An Inconvenient Truth”, to hearing about it from their political leaders on the evening news to reading about it on newspapers and magazines. More importantly, it seems that a large portion of the population not only has heard of it but is also concerned that it is already happening. According to a Zogby International Survey conducted last August 2006, around 74% of Americans feel that global warming is already happening. Three out of every four voting Americans are now reaching the same consensus that climate scientists already reached years ago. More importantly, in the same survey, 72% of respondents said that they agree with government action by requiring major industries to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It is not only clear that the public is aware of global warming; a clear majority of them want their government to do something about it.
According to the Energy Information Administration, the United States had 6,008.6 million metric tons (MMT) worth of emissions in 2005. Of these, 2,375.0 MMT, approximately 40% came from the production of electricity. Not all electricity production is responsible for this figure. Only conventional heat fired power plants account for vast majority of the carbon emissions due to electricity production. This is because heat fired power plants burn fossil fuels such as oil, coal and gas to produce heat needed to drive turbines and generators.
Not all electricity production comes from fossil fuels; there is also the option of using Nuclear Power. The technology for nuclear power has been with us for decades. More importantly, nuclear power plants produce virtually no greenhouse gas emissions. However, nuclear power in the United States is considerably underutilized, accounting only for 11.75% of the country’s electricity production (EIA, 2007). This puts us considerably behind countries like France that produce 78.5% of their country’s electricity using nuclear power. The US ranks 19th in the world when it comes to percent of electricity derived from nuclear power. We as a country which invented nuclear power could do better than this. Thus my proposition is that In light of global climate change in the form of global warming, the United States should increase its investment in the production of electricity via Nuclear Power.
Nuclear Power produces power via the process of atomic fission. The process of atomic fission breaks down nuclear fuel (commonly an isotope of Uranium or Plutonium) into simpler atoms and in the processes releases large amounts of heat to boil steam and drive turbines. The process does not release carbon dioxide unlike fossil fuels and thus does not contribute to the increase in greenhouse gas concentration. By replacing coal power plants with nuclear power plants, the greenhouse gas emissions of the United States will be greatly reduced. The country could sustain its energy consumption while at the same time reduce its contribution to global warming.
The replacement of fossil fueled power plants is not the only way that nuclear power can reduce the greenhouse gas emissions of the country. Transportation is also a sector that releases greenhouse gases into the air. Gasoline combustion in automobile engines emits copious amounts of carbon dioxide as well as soot and other harmful gases. An alternative to gasoline powered cars is the use of hydrogen in vehicles. However, electricity is needed to generate hydrogen. In a thought experiment, replacing all gasoline cars with hydrogen cars does not significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions as it just moved greenhouse gases from the roads and put them into the coal and gas power plants. This problem is solved by nuclear power. By using nuclear power that does not emit greenhouse gases; we could make inroads in reducing greenhouse gas emissions both at the power plants and in our roads.
Secondly, because of the nature of nuclear power production, Nuclear Power can be considered as a renewable power source. Even though the needed ingredient for nuclear power – Uranium – has to be mined from the Earth, it has been calculated that the Earth has enough nuclear material to sustain our energy needs for the next billion years. This would be certainly more than what we need! Thus for practical considerations, nuclear fuel could already be considered limitless.
This is opposed to fossil fuels which are limited in quantity. According to the Worldwatch Institute’s State of the World 2005, oil production is already in decline in 33 of the 48 largest oil producing countries. In addition to that, as the amount of accessible oil decreases, supply and demand tells us that the price of oil will increase given that demand remains constant. However, demand around the world is increasing fueled by developing countries like China and India. As a result, the price of oil will likely to continue to increase. This will not only happen to oil but also to coal and any finite resource.
This brings me to my third argument for nuclear power. Another benefit to nuclear power is its low cost compared to fossil fuels. In 2002, the cost in cents per kWh of nuclear power was lower than oil coal and gas.
|Fuel||Cost per kWh (cents)|
Cost per kWh by power plant type
(data taken from http://www-formal.stanford.edu/jmc/progress/nuclearnow.html)
Additionally, the cost for nuclear power will probably stay low as opposed to fossil fuels which will eventually reach a decline in supply. Also, if nuclear power was used to power automobiles (via hydrogen), the low cost of nuclear power would not only be reflected in the electricity bill of the common household but also in the costs of the average motorist. By displacing the use of gasoline with hydrogen, the United States could also reduce or even completely eliminate its reliance on foreign oil.
No emission of greenhouse gases, virtually limitless supply, low cost compared to fossil fuels, the benefits of nuclear power simply outweigh those of fossil fuels. However, there are currently no nuclear power plants being built in the United States (IAEA, 2006). Nuclear power plants have been virtually on hold for the past two decades. Concerns about the safety of nuclear power plants as triggered by the Three Mile Island incident and Chernobyl crippled nuclear energy development up to the start of the 21st century. Nuclear power plants became unpopular and permits were never given for the construction of additional nuclear reactors.
However, if there is one lesson to be learned from Chernobyl and Three Mile Island is that nuclear power is safe. The technology, the engineering, the redundancy measures, the safety features of nuclear reactors work and that nuclear power is safe. This is counterintuitive but is logical when we compare the fact that Chernobyl produced a wasteland while Three-Mile-Island produced zero fatalities and casualties.
For starters, Three Mile Island had a containment, a three foot thick concrete wall reinforced with thick steel rods encasing the reactor. Inside the containment, it is lined with steel plates that could withstand 10 times normal atmospheric pressure. The containment serves two purposes, first it prevents things from getting inside the reactor core like planes hitting it, tornadoes flinging cars at it or an explosion from the outside breaching the wall. Secondly, the containment prevents stuff from coming out of the reactor in case of an emergency, preventing the release of radioactive materials. Even if it holds even for just a few hours that would be enough to mitigate disastrous environmental effects as redundancy systems inside the containment are already kicking in to clean up the air and reduce the amount of radioactivity.
Three-Mile-Island had such containment. Hindsight tells us that even if there had been a complete meltdown of the reactor, the containment system would have prevented any escape of radioactivity. Chernobyl had no such containment. If it had, analysts tell us that virtually no radioactivity would have escaped. It has been known for decades that Soviet Chernobyl type reactors would never have been allowed to be built in the United States (Cohen, 1990).
That is the story of nuclear safety. Effective safety measures do exist and they do work if they are used.
More than twenty years have passed since Chernobyl and Three Mile Island and in those twenty years Nuclear Power Plant construction in the United States has been at a standstill. We are depriving ourselves of the many benefits of nuclear power for an irrational near impossible risk. We are too afraid that we will let a Chernobyl turn Middletown, USA into a wasteland. But what will our children say to us when the whole Earth becomes a desert wasteland and we held back on the single technology that could have prevented it?
Cohen, B (1990). The Nuclear Energy Option. New York, NY: Plenum Press.
International Atomic Energy Agency. (July 2006). Energy,Electricity and Nuclear Power Estimates for the Periodup to 2030. In International Atomic Energy Agency. Retrieved April 28, 2007, from http://www-pub.iaea.org/MTCD/publications/PDF/RDS1-26_web.pdf.
Energy Information Administration. (November 2006). Emissions of Greenhouse Gases in the United States 2005. In Energy Information Administration. Retrieved April 28, 2007, from http://www.eia.doe.gov/oiaf/1605/ggrpt/carbon.html.
Energy Information Administration. (n.d.). Energy Production by Source, 1949-2005. In Energy Information Administration. Retrieved April 28, 2007, from http://www.eia.doe.gov/emeu/aer/txt/ptb0102.html.
McCarthy, J.. (2001). Nuclear Now. In John McCarthy’s Home Page. Retrieved April 27, 2007, from http://www-formal.stanford.edu/jmc/progress/nuclearnow.html.