Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The Cons of Nuclear Energy Expansion

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As I mentioned in Saturday's post, this coming Thursday, Hofstra will host a debate as to whether or not nuclear energy should be expanded to create a more sustainable future.  Many in the sustainability field argue that nuclear energy should be rapidly expanded to get us off of fossil fuels.  Others counter that nuclear energy is too dangerous and costly.

In the coming week, I will have several posts on this issue.  Here is what has been written and what can be expected in the coming days:

Sunday:  What is nuclear energy and how is it produced in power plants?

Monday:  The distribution of nuclear power plants around the world and the amount of nuclear energy produced.

Today:  The pros of nuclear energy expansion.

Today:  The cons of nuclear energy expansion.

Thursday:  Introduction of the debaters.

Friday:  Debate redux.  My reaction to the debate.

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Yesterday, I reviewed the pros of nuclear energy expansion and today I move to the cons.  The arguments against expanded nuclear fall largely within three main areas:  safety, waste, cost, and viable alternatives.  I will review each of these.

1.  Safety.  There is no doubt that there is strong concern about the safety of nuclear energy after the Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster that was caused by a Tsunami brought on by a major 9.0 earthquake that devastated parts of Japan in March of 2011.  The power plant released tremendous amounts of radiation during a several week period.  Clean up of the site is still problematic and many areas remain contaminated. There is also great concern over long-term contamination of groundwater.

The Fukushima disaster illustrated that nuclear power plants can pose a risk to surrounding communities.  Obviously, not all areas are prone to 8.0 earthquakes and tsunamis, but the other major nuclear disaster, Chernobyl, was most likely caused by human error.  The expansion of nuclear energy would put more areas at risk.

2.  Waste.  Nuclear waste is a vexing problem.  Some nuclear waste stays radioactive for thousands of
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years.  What do we do with it?  It is essentially a poison that can cause great harm to individuals upon short or long-term exposure (depending on the material).  In the United States, we had a plan to store nuclear waste in Yucca Mountain in Nevada.  However, for a number of reasons, that site was deemed inappropriate.  At the present time, waste from nuclear power plants is stored at the power plants themselves since there is nowhere for it to go.  The waste continues to increase and it must be monitored and guarded.  If nuclear energy were to expand, the waste issue would increase.

3.  Costs.  Nuclear power plants are among the most expensive power plants to be built.  The challenge with building them is that most of the major costs of operating a power plant are at the front end of construction.  Indeed, about 70% of the costs of producing energy over the lifespan of a nuclear power plant are in the initial construction and design.  To expand nuclear would utilize tremendous capital costs that could be used to improve and expand renewable power generation.

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4.  Viable Alternatives.  One of the most striking arguments against expanding nuclear for a carbon-free future is that there are many alternatives that could be explored.  Wind, solar, tide, and wave energy power plants all exist and could be expanded greatly with appropriate investment.  Plus, by improving energy efficiency of homes and electronics we could greatly reduce the need for electricity.

Americans have not been strongly in favor of nuclear power for quite some time.  We have not built a new nuclear power plant since the 1990s.   The anti-nuclear movement in the United States is very strong and vocal.  Plus, we have abundant fossil fuel resources that make nuclear seem like a distant necessity.  However, the challenges of global climate change are making many reevaluate the potential for nuclear energy in our current era.

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