In the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster that struck Japan in 2011, nuclear energy has come under renewed scrutiny worldwide. Though there are many advantages to nuclear power, a close analysis of the history of uranium-based energy production reveals a darker side to nuclear energy.
Nuclear Energy: Just the Facts
Nuclear power plants have been around since 1951, when the Experimental Breeder Reactor I (EBR-I) in Idaho produced enough electricity to illuminate four 200-watt light bulbs.
Larger, commercial-scale nuclear plants were soon built throughout the United States, Canada, the Soviet Union and England.
A typical nuclear reactor uses enriched uranium -- usually uranium 235 or plutonium 239 -- to generate power. The radioactive uranium is formed into long rods that are submerged into water; the rods of uranium heat the water, creating steam, which then drives a steam turbine. The movement of the steam turbines is what generates electricity. (The plumes of water vapor seen rising from the large cooling towers of nuclear power plants are just harmless steam.)
Currently, there are over 430 nuclear power plants in service all around the world, and just over 100 in the United States. (Because plants go online or offline regularly, the exact number changes yearly.) Nuclear power provides about 15 percent of the world's electricity, and about 20 of the electricity in the United States.
France, Japan and the United States are the largest users of nuclear power, generating over half of the total nuclear power available worldwide.
Advantages of Nuclear Power
Nuclear energy generates electricity very efficiently when compared to coal-generated power plants. It takes millions of tons of coal or oil, for example, to duplicate the energy production of just one ton of uranium, according to some estimates.
And because coal and oil combustion is a major contributor to greenhouse gases, nuclear power plants don't contribute to global warming and climate change as much as coal or oil.
Some analysts have pointed out that another advantage to nuclear power is the distribution of uranium across the Earth. There isn't one global center of uranium mining -- no "Mideast of uranium" exists. Many of the countries that do mine uranium, like Australia, Canada and the United States, are relatively stable, so uranium supplies aren't as vulnerable to political or economic instability like oil can be.
In Case of Nuclear Accident ...
When things work exactly like they're supposed to, nuclear energy is a very safe source of power. Trouble is, things don't always work out that way in the real world. A partial meltdown at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania in 1979 released radiation into the atmosphere; cleanup costs topped $900 million dollars.
In 1986, a flawed reactor design at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in the Soviet Union caused an explosion in the plant. Nuclear radiation was released for several days, resulting in a major disaster that killed hundreds of people throughout the region. And in 2011, the Fukushima reactor in Japan was hit by an earthquake and a tsunami, causing another huge environmental disaster.
Despite the assurances of nuclear engineers and proponents of nuclear energy, disasters like this are entirely unpredictable and all too common, and will no doubt continue. The price for these crises is extraordinarily high. After Chernobyl, for example, roughly five million people were exposed to high levels of radiation; the World Health Organization estimates that some 4,000 cases of thyroid cancer resulted, and an untold number of children in the region were born with severe deformities.
If a nuclear accident like Fukushima should strike the United States, the repercussions would be catastrophic. Four nuclear reactors in California are located near active earthquake fault lines. The Indian Point nuclear power plant, for example, is just 35 miles north of New York City, and it's ranked by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission as the riskiest nuclear plant in the country.
A Word About Nuclear Waste
Another undeniable problem is the safe disposal of spent nuclear fuel rods. Nuclear waste remains radioactive for tens of thousands of years -- far beyond the planning capacity of any government agency. And each year, an active nuclear power plant produces about 20 to 30 tons of radioactive waste. Even in an advanced country like the United States, nuclear waste is currently being stored at temporary sites around the country while politicians and scientists debate the best course of action.
And speaking of waste, some critics point out that the enormous government subsidies the nuclear energy industry receives are the only thing that makes nuclear power feasible. Roughly $58 billion in loan guarantees and subsidies from the U.S. federal government shore up the nuclear industry, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists. Without those taxpayer subsidies, they argue, the entire industry could collapse since the subsides are greater than the average market price of the electricity that's produced.
Is Nuclear Energy Renewable?
In a word: No. Like oil, natural gas and other fossil fuels, uranium is not renewable, and there are finite supplies of uranium that can be mined for nuclear energy. And mining uranium has its own risks, including the release of potentially deadly radon gas and the disposal of radioactive mining waste.
The fact that nuclear energy is not renewable is, of course, a significant disadvantage that makes renewable sources of energy like solar, geothermal and wind energy seem much more attractive. Given the complexities and challenges of the world's energy needs, the pros and cons of nuclear power will continue to be a hot topic for many years to come.