Ever since the power of nuclear fission and fusion reactions and their vast potential to generate energy were discovered, there has been much debate regarding the application of nuclear energy. We have come a long way since the first time atomic energy was used to generate electricity in the US in 1951. Nuclear energy today is generated from the fission of enriched uranium containing about 0.7% of the U-235 isotope. Despite the fact that 6% of the world’s energy and 13-14% of the world’s electricity is supplied by nuclear power plants , the disadvantages of nuclear power are glaringly evident. Countries like France and US who obtain a large chunk of their electricity supply from nuclear energy have to especially consider these disadvantages of nuclear power seriously.
There is much politics and debate surrounding the use of nuclear energy since its effects can be as disastrous as they are helpful. As nuclear energy is the next big thing to be used as a source of energy in the coming years and has already been implemented in a number of significant countries, it seems appropriate to examine the counter argument to the use of nuclear power.
The cost of reactors is extremely high with almost 90% of the cost of production going into construction and procurement of raw materials. The actual production of energy occupies a much smaller portion of the expenses. For instance, the Manhattan Project, which was a research and development programme developed in the US to explore the use of nuclear energy in developing weapons incurred over 90% of the cost on building factories and producing the fissionable materials, with less than 10% for development and production of the weapons. The nuclear reactors are a multi-billion dollar investment with new ones expected to cost in excess of $15 billion.
Further, the raw material used in the fission reaction to produce energy is the U-235 isotope of uranium which comprises only 0.72% of naturally present uranium. Uranium is a rarely found element in nature with small concentrations present in soil, water and rock. Thus high costs of extraction and refining add to the total costs. This makes the whole process of establishing a nuclear plant and finally generating energy from it very expensive with a huge initial capital requirement. It will also take a long time to recover this investment and make it a profitable venture. This is the main reason behind private operators not venturing into production of nuclear power, apart from security concerns.
The most significant disadvantage of nuclear power is the issue of disposal of the used uranium rods after the production process is complete. Special ‘spent fuel pools’ are created for the purpose of storing and shielding the radiations of the spent fuel. These pools are filled with water where the spent fuel rods are then immersed for 10-20 years and finally transferred to a dry cask storage. More resources are required to construct and maintain these spent fuel pools since the used uranium is radioactive and emits harmful radiations which would prove disastrous in case of human contact. Nuclear fission products have half lives which extend up to thousands of years making them a radioactive hazard. Thus, nuclear waste requires sophisticated treatment techniques and management in order to prevent its interaction with the biosphere.
These requirements further add to the cost of the power plant since a dedicated waste management unit has to be deployed in all nuclear power stations.
Perhaps the most widely debated and morally relevant issue regarding nuclear power generation is the numerous health hazards that it poses to people employed in the power plants as well as those who live in the vicinity. Employees in nuclear power plants are constantly exposed to high degrees of radiation while handling uranium and its isotopes and hence need to take great measures to protect themselves from radioactive contamination. Also, people living in areas near the nuclear plant might be exposed to low levels of radioactive radiations if they are not sufficiently contained. Scavenging of disposed radioactive material is the cause of several radiation exposure cases. Especially in developing countries where there may not be strict regulations or enforcement regarding hazardous waste disposal.
There have been several instances of nuclear disasters which have had a horrible impact on people around the area. The most famous and deadly one is the Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster that took place in Ukraine in 1986. An explosion and subsequent fire led to large quantities of radioactive contamination being released into the atmosphere and spreading out over Ukraine, Russia and Belarus. This led to severe consequences for the people living in the area as well the environment and wildlife. In a situation such as this, the only method of dealing with the disaster is to evacuate all individuals from the area. This was done in Chernobyl as well as the Fukushima Daiichi disaster in Japan. A Greenpeace report puts the number of cancer deaths as a result of the Chernobyl fallout at 200,000 or more. Mutations in animals increased over the next few years and contamination spread to such an extent that the Soviet air force was assigned to remove radioactive particles from clouds which were headed towards highly populated areas. The most important effect on human health due to prolonged exposure to radioactive emission is acute radiation sickness (ARS). In the Chernobyl disaster, approximately 237 people died from ARS in the immediate aftermath of the accident.
The effects on flora, fauna, rivers, lakes and groundwater are also very profound and have a lasting deteriorating impact for the next few decades.
Another pressing concern with the use of nuclear power in generating electricity and other energy forms is its potential to be used for production of nuclear weapons. Nuclear proliferation is the spread of nuclear weapons to unreliable sources. The fact is the plutonium treated in nuclear reactors can be used to generate weapons grade bomb material and raises doubts about the intentions of countries like Iran which despite sitting on fields of oil are setting up nuclear reactors to generate electricity. Thus a lot of governments which have been deemed unstable or unreliable are continuing to obtain technology for harnessing nuclear power and this raises serious security concerns.
On the other hand, nuclear reactors and power plants are also potential targets for terrorist attacks. Such security threats and leakages in nuclear power plants are cause for great concern and need to be regarded carefully before setting up reactors.
It has been rightly said that with great power comes great responsibility. By adopting this sentiment and building upon it, the concerns and disadvantages of nuclear power may be managed to a reasonable extent in the near future. Since nuclear power is our best hope for generating vast amounts of clean, efficient energy it is necessary to deal properly with these issues. The disadvantages of nuclear power although difficult and serious in nature, need to be tackled swiftly.