Nuclear energy is a method of harnessing energy through the splitting of an atomic nucleus. This is achieved by shooting a neutron at a highly fissile atomic element with an unstable nucleus. A fissile element is an element that has a geometrically unstable nucleus. The fuel generally chosen for nuclear reactors are isotopes from actinides and lanthanides, like Uranium-235. When this nucleus of the fuel is split, a massive amount of energy is released. This energy, in turn, can be used to power a turbine, which will generate electricity. The energy that is yielded from nuclear power does not produce pollution, and it is readily renewable. This aspect of nuclear energy is exactly what makes it a promising candidate to help with global air pollution.
Recently “carbon emissions [have grown] by 2.0%, the fastest growth for seven years, [and] energy consumption grew at a rate of 2.9% last year, almost double its 10-year average of 1.5% per year”(BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2019). This large increase in carbon emissions can be attributed to the use of nonrenewable energy sources, such as coal, oil, or natural gas. If we hope to save our planet and reverse the total production of carbon emissions, we must increase our consumption from renewable energy sources, and although renewable energy has resurfaced and made great strides in usage, in 2018 “renewable power grew by [only] 14.5%, slightly below its historical average”(BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2019). During my lifetime, I have been able to see the destruction humans have had on the environment from a local scale and most certainly a global one. Air pollution has caused the ozone layer to breakdown and consequently, the global climate has changed. This issue is important to me because I want the earth to be a stable place for my future and the generations after me.
The purpose of this research paper is to investigate if nuclear energy is a viable renewable source of energy to help improve the global climate and environment. The research question that will be explored in this paper is: To what extent can nuclear energy help battle the negative environmental effects of air pollution? There are clearly other renewable sources of energy that have been developed in recent years. However, global climate change is an issue that is very difficult to overcome. Humans currently have the technology to overcome the issue of climate change, but making these technological changes on a global scale could result in radical developments in the political, social, and economic atmosphere that we now live in. Thus, to determine the viability of nuclear energy to overcome this issue, all risks, all production costs, and total efficiency must be taken into consideration. Nuclear energy may not be the exact solution to global climate change. However, by investigating this topic other possible approaches to handling the issue can be formulated and possibly improve the global condition of the issue.
The first aspect that must be taken into account is the risks. The risks this paper will evaluate will pertain to the health and environmental concerns. If the risks are too high, the option to institute the use of nuclear energy to help with climate change will become obsolete. To discover just how dangerous or safe nuclear energy is, we must compare it to current energy sources that are being used on large scales. The figures and statistics in this paper will pertain to all variances of nuclear energy and will not spend time discussing the discrepancies between older and newer models for reactors. However, it is important to keep in mind that newer reactors show promising results in increasing the total safety for citizens and workers while also improving total production yielded. It must be stated that although nuclear energy is a clean and renewable source, it emits radiation, which is carcinogenic. Also, if the core overheats, a meltdown can occur which can leave a city abandoned due to excessive radiation. However, the deaths and injuries that occur from nuclear energy compared to other sources of energy are much lower. According to Figure 1, 94% of minor air pollution illnesses occur from coal.
In fact, the only statistic that is not at least 84% due to coal is accident-related deaths among the public, however, in total there are only 6 accident-related deaths among the public so the sample size is too small to be held to its true numerical value. A critic of this table might argue that the figures are too centrally focused on air pollution. However, air pollution most certainly needs to be part of the focus of these charts and graphs due to the health concerns and environmental risks that arise from it. For instance, according to Figure 2, the death rate per kWh of biomass while excluding air pollution is a modest 0.016. However, once air pollution is included the deaths per kWh for biomass leap all the way to 4.63. Thus, excluding the factor of air pollution when determining the safety of energy sources drastically skews the results in a distorted and misleading manner.
The obvious environmental concerns and health risks that must be attributed to nuclear energy are the radiation it can emit and the nuclear waste it can produce. There are actually several different types of radiation, according to Fred Baes. Alpha radiation is the weakest type of radiation and is not even able to penetrate the skin. Beta radiation is stronger than alpha radiation and is able to penetrate the skin but can also be easily deflected or blocked with a piece of wood or even aluminum foil. Gamma radiation and X-rays are similar in strength and are able to deeply penetrate the skin, thus a dense material is needed, such as lead, to block or deflect the radiation. However, neither the radiation emitted nor the nuclear waste produced from nuclear power plants is as detrimental to the environment when compared to the greenhouse gas emissions from non-renewable energy sources. If the United States, for example, piled up all their nuclear waste on a football field it would only be 20 meters high, which is barely comparable to the total volume of greenhouse gases produced by nonrenewable energy sources (U.S. GAO).
According to Duke Energy, “if you lived outside the gate of a nuclear power plant, 24 hours a day for a year, you would receive less than one mrem of radiation.” A millirem (mrem) is a unit of measure that takes into account different health effects from different types of radiation. One millirem, however, is not nearly enough to cause any damage to the human body. Based on the “atomic bomb explosions in 1945 at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, half of the people died whose entire bodies were exposed to 450,000 millirems of radiation from the atomic bomb. All persons died whose bodies were exposed to 600,000 millirems of radiation”(MIT News). Simply put, although nuclear energy does emit radiation, it is not a serious health concern unless you are exposed to a very high amount.
However, environmental concerns are not the same for nonrenewable energy sources. Nonrenewable energy sources cause pollution that can damage air quality, which in turn can have very adverse effects on our environment. Carbon emissions take up a significant amount of all air pollution. It is expected that carbon emissions will have a heating effect on the surface and lower atmosphere temperature, while there will be a cooling effect of the upper atmosphere. Over the past century, carbon emissions have been increasing steadily (Figure 3). From Figure 3 it is logical to conclude that the surface temperature and lower atmosphere temperatures will show an increasing trend and the upper atmosphere will show a decreasing trend. The annual mean of global surface temperature has also been increasing.
Additionally, the lower tropospheric temperatures have shown a general increase, which further supports the belief that carbon emissions have a heating effect on the lower atmosphere. Figure 5 is based on statistics from satellite measurements while Figure 6 is based on statistics from ballon station measurements. However, both show similar data values from two different methods, thus the numerical figures given from the experiments are reliable. The Satellite Microwave Sounding Unit (MSU) and Radiosonde balloon station also took data values for the stratosphere. The values from the MSU have been taken since 1979, while the values from the balloon station have been taken since 1958. From this data collected, a general cooling trend from 0.6ºC to 0.7ºC has been shown for the stratosphere (Angell 1997, Parker et al. 1997, Simmons et al. 1999). Thus, carbon emissions are having a negative impact on the environment.
A general increase in the surface temperature and lower atmospheric temperature could result in the melting of glaciers or even drought. The melting of glaciers would drastically change the ecosystems of many wild animals and also result in fewer UV rays being reflected back into space. Additionally, a drought could impact the economy and cause social distress since food production could decrease. A decrease in upper atmospheric temperatures could result in a drastic change in wind and ocean patterns, which in turn can affect multiple ecosystems. The negative effects of carbon-emitting energy sources are much more damaging to people and the environment than that of nuclear energy. Thus, nuclear energy must be considered as a safe and potential alternative source of energy production to help aid the fight against global climate change.