Environment Magazine

Not Oil, But Not Green Either - Part 3: Nuclear Power

Posted on the 29 March 2011 by ---


Not Oil, But Not Green Either - Part 3: Nuclear Power

Effects of Radiation: A Mutated Dog
from the region near Chernobyl

First of all, my apologies for the protracted lull in posting - it's been a hectic couple of weeks at school.  I considered nuclear power as an installment in this ongoing series about misguided alternative energy "silver bullets" several days before the disaster in Japan struck.  Clearly, the tragedy there has increased awareness of nuclear's dangers and upped the sense of urgency in addressing this vital issue, so what I am writing now may not come as a surprise to some.  However, it seems to be something worth saying, especially because of the revived global concerns about nuclear power.

Not Oil, But Not Green Either - Part 3: Nuclear Power
Nuclear power has always seemed attractive because of its efficiency.  For instance, if you wanted to meet current levels of energy consumption in New York City with solar energy, you'd have to coat every rooftop there with photovoltaic cells.  However, with a nuclear facility spanning one or two blocks, it would be possible to produce enough energy and still have a surplus.  Energy isn't the only surplus.  Although CO2 emissions from nuclear plants are admirably low, besting even wind and solar technologies, the byproducts are plutonium-239 and spent fuel.  Not only does plutonium emit lethal doses of gamma rays at a critical mass, it has a half-life of more than 24,000 years.  Nevada's Yucca Mountain, as convenient as it may seem, does not have more than 24,000 years worth of space (after 48,000 years, 25% of mass remains, after 96,000, 12.5%).  No one wants deadly, cancer-causing waste in his or her backyard.  And if nuclear is being envisioned as the solution for future energy demands, that's a lot of waste.  The fundamental unsustainability of a burgeoning, slowly-decaying stockpile of toxic waste is obvious.
Moreover, these concerns don't begin to address the other problems with nuclear energy (such as the present ones in Japan, for instance).  Vulnerable to natural disasters, maintenance accidents, and terrorist attacks, they pose a grave danger to anyone in the immediate vicinity.  And if they are destroyed, as in the case of Chernobyl, they can create areas of long-term desolation that profoundly affect the quality of human and animal life (see picture at top).  Nuclear could solve our global warming woes, but in the long run, it only cordons off section after section of our planet as unusable, ravaging ecosystems in the instance of accidents and filling the ground with hazardous materials.  In this way, nuclear is the least green and sustainable.  It is the proverbial out of the frying pan and into the fire situation.  If we abandon fossil fuels for nuclear, we may quell the destructive power of climate change.  Unfortunately, we will only be entrenching ourselves in a still greater problem.  There is hope that the world will come to appreciate the awful force of nuclear radiation, most of all in light of recent events.  In the interim, it's time for US leaders to acknowledge that this method of powering the country is deeply flawed.

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