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Nuclear Power Plants Have Improved Steadily over the Last Ten Years

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Nuclear power plants have improved steadily over the last ten years.

Nuclear power plants are a safe, clean and reliable source of energy production. They are uniquely qualified to meet the growing demand for energy in the U.S. It is estimated that the demand for power will grow two and a half percent per year. Even if the demand for energy didn't increase in the future but stayed where it is nuclear would still be the best choice for power production. Nuclear costs less and is environmentally cleaner than coal, which currently supplies approximately fifty percent of the power in the U.S. (Loewen 53). In addition nuclear has an exemplary safety record. The group of people who oppose nuclear and promote renewable power sources, hereafter termed environmentalists, do so for very sound reasons. However, they fail to realize that renewables, wind and solar power, cannot supply the base-load electricity needed for the power grid. They also don't realize that of the five power sources that can supply base-load electricity, coal, oil, hydroelectric dams, nuclear and natural gas, nuclear outranks the others either in cost or environmental safety or both.

To understand nuclear power we need to have a general understanding of how it is generated in most nuclear plants. This is a general description only and makes no claim to encompass all the different variations possible for the design of nuclear power plants. Nuclear energy is produced from the nuclear fission reaction of a heavy nucleus such as uranium absorbing a neutron after which it splits into two fragments of nearly equal mass. This releases a substantial amount of energy and several more neutrons. The neutrons are then able to strike other heavy nuclei and cause them to fission, releasing more energy. This process occurring continuously results in a chain reaction in which many billions of nuclei may fission in a small fraction of second. In a nuclear reactor the self-sustaining series of fissions is carefully controlled. The enormous amount of energy released occurs in the form of radiation and the kinetic energy of the fission products expelled at high speeds. Most of the energy becomes thermal and is used to heat water and convert it to high-pressure steam. The steam is then used to drive a turbine and the mechanical energy of the turbine is converted to electricity by means of a generator (Britannica).

Environmentalists argue against nuclear power on the grounds of the danger of the radiation emitted by nuclear reactors and nuclear waste, the problems with the disposal of nuclear waste and, finally, that renewable energy sources can supply all the power necessary to meet any growth in demand (Lake Lovins Lovins 44). They claim w e don't need nuclear, because renewables are a better, cleaner option. These first two objections to nuclear energy are undeniable. Radiation is dangerous and there are problems with nuclear waste. The third argument against nuclear energy has merit but environmentalists don't take into account some of the realities about renewables (Loewen 52).

Renewables are better environmentally than any other power source under specific circumstances. The two most touted renewable energy sources are wind power and solar power. The specific circumstances in which they are better are when the wind is blowing and the sun is shining. Unfortunately, neither the wind nor the sun can be guaranteed to function for any specific date or time. The sun can only be guaranteed not to shine for approximately twelve hours a day and wind has no guarantees at all. Also, technology is not advanced enough to adequately harness the power provided by the sun and wind when they are available. It would take five hundred times the amount of land to build a solar plant with the same output as a nuclear plant (Oliver Hospers 24-25).

If renewables are not an option for increased power production, we will have to use one of the five base-load generators already in use: coal, oil, nuclear, natural gas and hydroelectric. A breakdown of the amount of electricity each supplies and the cost of that electricity would be helpful at this point. Coal cost 2.07 cents per kilowatt hour and produced fifty percent of the electricity in the U.S. in 1999. Natural gas cost 3.52 cents and produced 16 percent. Oil cost 3.18 cents and produced 3 percent. Nuclear cost 1.83 cents and produced twenty percent. The cost for hydroelectric, which produced 9 percent, was not available (Loewen 53).

The question now is, which of the five is most viable both economically and environmentally? Hydroelectric has no emissions or solid waste so it is good for the environment, but it is also completely location specific. There are only a certain number of places where a hydroelectric dam can be built. If those places don't coincide with where the demand for power is you can't use it. Oil has a relatively high price as well as undeniably bad emissions of carbon dioxide. There is also the problem of a finite supply that is controlled by a small number of overseas countries, OPEC, with oil. Natural gas has the exact same problems as oil, finite supply, high cost and the emission of carbon dioxide. There are more problems with coal than with any of the other four. Coal has a finite supply, one coal plant emits seven million tons of carbon dioxide, twelve thousand tons of sulfur dioxide and twenty thousand tons of nitrogen oxides annually and it produces seven hundred and fifty thousand tons of solid waste containing mercury, cadmium, lead and arsenic every year. Nuclear has no emissions of any gases and one nuclear plant produces fifty tons of solid waste per year, it has a finite supply but it is a much larger finite supply than coal, oil or natural gas (Oliver Hospers 27-28).

Environmentalists term radiation an emission and call it one more dangerous than any of the organic gases emitted from coal, oil or natural gas. Bernard Cohen explains that:

Radiation consists of several types of subatomic particles, principally those called gamma rays, neutrons, electrons and alpha particles, that shoot through space at very high speeds, something like 100,000 miles per second. They can easily penetrate deep inside the human body, damaging some of the biological cells of which the body is composed. This damage can cause a fatal cancer to develop, or if it occurs in reproductive cells, it can cause genetic defects in later generations of offspring. (49)

Explained in this way radiation sounds extremely dangerous. However, Cohen goes on to explain that every human being is struck by about fifteen thousand of these particles every second of his or her life. As far as we know every particle has the potential of causing cancer. What saves us is the probability that one actually will cause cancer. It is about one in thirty quadrillion (30,000,000,000,000,000).

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