Response to Week 5 prompt 2 nuclear waste disposal

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While I agree with the prompt that we need to find better ways to dispose or reuse nuclear waste, nuclear power is much safer and much cleaner than fossil fuels in general. While nuclear radiation and waste gets all the bad rep from the media and environmental group, we forget that our reliance on fossil-fuel energy sources causes far more pollution, health damage, and accidents than nuclear power.

An article published on June 12, 2013, in The Guardian shows that European coal pollution causes 22,300 premature deaths a year. As of 9/4/2013, there has been a total of 341 coal mining fatalities in the United States alone, which pales in comparison to the 1,384 coal mining fatalities in China which is down significantly from around 7,000 a decade ago.

To bring this into context, there have so far been 0 fatalities tied to the Fukushima and Three Mile Island disasters. The worst case is from Chernobyl, where 56 direct deaths and 4,000 cancer deaths were linked. The second worst nuclear-related fatality case was in 2004 when 4 people were killed and 9 were injured in Japan where a steam explosion occurred.

While the public opinion is against nuclear power, more and more coal power plants open up and pollute the environment more than nuclear power could ever hope to. Nuclear power has already been shown to be cleaner, safer, and more efficient than fossil fuels. Instead of trying to stop nuclear power, we should make it even, cleaner, safer and more efficient than it already is especially as it is currently more viable than clean energy sources like wind and solar.

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6 responses »

  1. Your point that the general public is against nuclear power is poignant. I think the reason for that is because of our lack of knowledge and our misconceptions about nuclear power. My boyfriend is an officer in the Navy working on submarines that are powered by nuclear reactors. According to this EPA article(http://www.epa.gov/radtown/submarine.html), crew members ” are actually exposed to less radiation than the general public” is on land. Even with this being said, some family and friends of ours have responded negatively and cynically to his job. I think people have Chernobyl etched in their memories, so this fear of explosions and extra body parts is present. That being said, I am concerned with the waste generated from nuclear power plants, even though I prefer it over coal power plants. As you said, hopefully nations will continue to make “cleaner, safer, and more efficient” methods of energy.

    • While I agree with your argument that nuclear power is a cleaner source of energy than fossil fuels, I think it would be neglectful to not mention that the actual use of coal is much cleaner now than it has been in years past. This is largely due to the development of new “clean coal” technologies. Some of the clean coal technologies that are used today are coal cleaning by ‘washing’. Washing reduces emissions of ash and sulfur dioxide when the coal is burned. Electrostatic precipitators and fabric filters that are used in many countries around the world remove 99% of the fly ash that is given off when coal is burned. Also, ultra-clean coal (UCC) reduces ash and sulfur to an amount that is below 0.25%. Overall, even though nuclear energy is a clean source of energy, that doesn’t mean that less environmentally efficient processes, such as coal burning can’t become more efficient over time with the help of technology.

      http://world-nuclear.org/info/Energy-and-Environment/-Clean-Coal–Technologies/#.UkyT1FOO6dk

  2. I agree that today nuclear power seems like a cleaner, less damaging method of generating energy than coal, but I think the future would strongly disagree. If we manage to end our dependence on fossil fuels in the near future in favor of a cleaner alternative, CO2 (which naturally exists in the atmosphere in smaller quantities) will eventually return to a normal level through photosynthesis, dissolving in water, etc. Plutonium, a byproduct of nuclear fission, has a half life of roughly 24,000 years. That means in 24,000 years, we are still left with half of what we started with. There is no known natural process that expedites the radioactive decay of Plutonium like photosynthesis reduces CO2, so future generations are simply stuck with it. My question is this: how can we safely contain this highly radioactive material for such a length of time that our species may not even exist anymore? I think we should be less concerned about the present when weighing the pros and cons of nuclear energy. Of course, this is not to say I endorse fossil fuels; I believe we need to find another way entirely.

    • As long as the radioactive waste is stored securely and safely, which for the most part it is, radioactive waste can be disposed of permanently in the future without harming the environment. The first one is burying the waste so deep into the earth that it doesn’t affect the environment.

      10 years ago launching rockets into space was solely in the realm of major governments with multi-billion dollar space programs. Just a few days ago SpaceX, a private company, just launched its latest Falcon 9 rocket into orbit. I predict that in several decades space travel will be much cheaper and more reliable to the point where nuclear waste can be disposed of in space.

  3. While these are good points to argue, and while I see the benefits of nuclear in the light of our current environmental problems (especially curtailing CO2 emissions), I feel that this frame of debate neglects a great deal of unintended and lasting consequences. Faced with global warming, health consequences and environmental degradation, the most pressing concern on people’s minds is to find cleaner ways of generating energy for the masses. Enter nuclear energy as they save-all: its processes emit no atmospheric pollutants and cause less human deaths per year on average. But does it mean it is better? While it solves our immediate concern of climate change, it simultaneously opens the issue of radioactive waste. With a life span greater than that of any known human civilization and the issue of waste disposal, this means of energy production almost seems a graver possibility than continuing our path of fossil fuels in the long run. An oil spill, though terrible, can be cleaned up and dispersed in the environment in a number of decades. Can the same be said of a nuclear waste spill?
    With an increase in nuclear production also comes a greater increase of accident risk and a greater amount of nuclear waste to contend with. Furthermore, if we look to nuclear as a global substitute for coal plants, how are the chances of catastrophe affected when looking at developing nations who wish to construct nuclear plants on the grounds of energy growth in a sustainable manner, who ultimately have less resources for infrastructure and regulation?
    In in my eyes, nuclear and coal are simply two sides of an undesirable coin. If we are willing to put the energy and resources into expanding energy economies other than coal and fossil fuels, why not direct those efforts into the environment- and health-friendly options of renewables?

    • The problem with our current system of nuclear production is that the infrastructure is terribly outdated and resistance against nuclear energy has essentially put a halt in any advances in technology. There has not been a single nuclear power plant in the US that has started construction after 1974. The Fukushima plant was constructed in 1971.

      With modern technology we can build safer and cleaner plants and replace these outdated ones. Technology also allows us to create better facilities for waste storage, and we are finding ways to process radioactive waste to reclaim potentially useful substances. Many radioactive medical markers are derived from radioactive waste.

      There are two potential solutions for our current problem of nuclear waste. They include putting the waste really, really deep inside the earth to the point where it doesn’t even remotely affect the environment. The other solution, as our technology improves, is to dispose of nuclear waste into space.

      Personally, I would like to see a rise in interest in building a viable fusion reactor, which would practically eliminate all problems with using radioactive heavy metals and provide never before seen levels of energy output.

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