The modern world has been characterized with several environmental issues in the recent past including natural resource depletion, climate change, pollution, and overpopulation. However, climate change has attracted significant attention because of increased environmental impact of industrialization and globalization. Climate change is largely attributable to the current energy sources, which continue to affect the environment. As a result, the search for a suitable energy source with little to no environmental effect has become a major issue for policymakers, governments, and environmentalists. Despite conventional views that nuclear power is unsuitable, recent studies and statistics have considered it a clean energy source. This has contributed to arguments and counter-arguments on whether nuclear energy is clean and safe for the environment. Despite having little to no emission of dangerous gases, nuclear energy is unsustainable when considered from an economic and social perspective.
The Case for Nuclear Energy
In the past few years, nuclear energy has received considerable attention as efforts to identify clean, safe, and green energy sources have intensified. Environmentalists, governments, and policymakers are increasingly looking for suitable alternatives to fossil fuels such as natural gas and coal. Nuclear energy has increasingly been regarded as a necessary and suitable alternative energy source in a world that is constantly energy-constrained (Totty, 2008). One of the arguments that have been used to support the case for nuclear energy is the environmentally friendly emissions associated with it. The conventional energy sources are associated with emissions of greenhouse gases through burning fossil fuels to generate power, which in turn contributes to global climate change. Unlike these conventional sources of energy, nuclear power plants do not emit carbon dioxide, sulfur or mercury. In consideration of full life-cycle emissions that includes shipping fuel, uranium mining and waste management, nuclear energy emits carbon dioxide that is comparable to the emissions of hydro and wind power while less than those of solar power. Therefore, using nuclear energy would help achieve the targeted levels of emissions and deal with the problem of climate change effectively.
Secondly, nuclear energy seemingly enjoys massive advantages over the other energy sources that are considered environmentally friendly. From an economic perspective, nuclear reactors have the capability to power large industrial societies in their current technological developmental stage (Koffler, 2008). Even though wind and solar power are environmentally friendly, they are significantly inefficient when compared to nuclear energy with regards to ability to power huge industrial societies. Actually, the other alternative energy sources would require huge governmental investments to be set up in order to meet the current energy needs in an efficient and effective manner. Moreover, given the lack of development of new nuclear power plants throughout the world, nuclear energy is relatively inexpensive and capable of meeting existing energy needs worldwide in an efficient and effective way. Therefore, nuclear energy makes economic sense since it’s affordable and environmentally friendly in comparison to the other alternative energy sources.
The third claim used to support the case for nuclear energy is the limits of alternative energy sources like wind and solar power. While they are environmentally friendly and have capability to address global climate change, wind and solar power are considerably limited as compared to nuclear energy. Currently, wind makes up approximately 1% while solar power accounts for less than 1% of global energy. Therefore, the consideration of these sources as the most suitable alternatives to the conventional energy sources would not effectively meet the existing energy needs. In essence, nuclear energy can meet the current global energy needs throughout the day i.e. 24 hours whereas solar and wind are unable to do that. Given these factors, nuclear energy seemingly fits the bill for current energy demands among all other alternative energy sources. The intermittent nature of wind and solar power (though they are cheaper than nuclear energy) makes them flawed alternatives to carbon-emitting energy sources.
The final argument used to demonstrate how nuclear energy fits the bill as a suitable alternative is safety. While there have been some nuclear power plant accidents in the past decade, nuclear power technology is largely safe since nuclear reactors are developed in a way that they are less likely to meltdown. The current state of nuclear energy technology and reactors implies that the likelihood of an accident in these power plants is very low as demonstrated by probabilistic risk assessment. This shows that nuclear energy is relatively safe and its use would generate numerous environmental benefits and advantages unlike conventional sources of energy.
The Case against Nuclear Energy
While proponents have raised various arguments to support the case for nuclear energy, opponents have differed with them on several claims. Actually, the case against nuclear energy as developed by opponents is embedded on economics and safety, which is a major social issue. From an economic perspective, opponents postulate that the development and funding of a new nuclear power plant is very expensive and makes this energy sources uneconomical in comparison with other sources of power (Totty, 2008). The high costs of construction and maintenance of nuclear power plants have contributed to the fact that no new plant has been developed in the recent past despite increased attention on nuclear energy. The use of nuclear power as an energy source to address climate change would create huge financial burdens to governments and taxpayers because of high costs of development and maintenance.
Secondly, opponents have argued against the claim that nuclear energy is safe and clean on the premise that the safety of nuclear power plants is unreliable because of high chances of accidents. Public opinion on nuclear energy has largely been shaped by accidents or incidents in nuclear power plants and had considerable impacts on energy policies across the world. The devastating effects of nuclear power accidents like the Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima disaster have demonstrated that nuclear energy is not entirely safe. Even though nuclear reactors have been redesigned, more safety features added to the plants, and enhanced training of personnel carried out, safety concerns continue to affect consideration of nuclear energy as a safe energy source.
Third, the long-term disposal of nuclear waste is a major problem that has been at the center of the case against this source of power. According to environmental experts, the most suitable means of nuclear waste disposal is deep underground through which radioactive materials cannot enter the environment. However, the lack of deep pools and suitable sites for burying nuclear waste implies that it is a significant problem and a major issue in this debate. Moreover, the required technology to make radioactive waste from nuclear power plants inert and harmless is yet to be perfected though it already exists (Koffler, 2008). The impact of radioactive waste on the environment does very little to support the case for nuclear energy as evident in the aftermath of major nuclear power accidents in the past decades.
Opponents have also claimed that nuclear energy would result in proliferation of nuclear weapons, which will generate significant risks to global security. Nuclear power plants that utilize uranium can also be used to create nuclear weapons like bombs, which imply that nuclear energy could generate huge security risks than the environmental problems it may solve. Potentially hostile countries are likely to use radioactive materials from nuclear power plants to create atomic weapons that can be used for mass destruction. Given the significance of non-proliferation in a world where crime is evolving, nuclear energy is not a safe and clean source of power despite its potential to solve global warming.
There is no doubt that nuclear energy has the potential of meeting the global energy needs in an efficient and effective manner. As evident in this discussion, the ability of nuclear power to meet energy needs with little to no carbon emissions is not in question. Proponents and opponents of nuclear power as a clean and safe energy source concur that nuclear energy is environmentally friendly since it does not emit greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming. However, the effectiveness of this energy source is not only dependent on its ability to meet energy needs without emitting greenhouse gases but also dependent on other important factors. In consideration of these factors, nuclear energy is not a reliable source of energy despite being environmentally friendly. When considered from an economic and social perspective, nuclear power is not a safe and clean source of energy.
Generally, the suitability of an energy source is not only dependent on scientific factors i.e. emission of gases but also determined by other factors particularly in economic and social aspects. From a scientific perspective, it is evident that nuclear energy is the most suitable alternative. However, when social and economic perspectives are considered, nuclear power is not a sustainable energy source. There are several reasons that can be used to prove this claim including
Safety Issues and Concerns
From a social perspective, one of the major concerns that demonstrate that nuclear power is not sustainable is safety. These safety concerns and issues are not only brought by the physical dangers emerging from nuclear reactors but also attributable to the fuel cycle of nuclear energy from the mining stage to reprocessing. While coal mining is associated with increased cases and incidents of premature deaths, argument in support of nuclear power as a clean and safe energy source forget that uranium miners in nuclear power plants suffer even worse effects. In essence, the use of nuclear power as an energy source is likely to contribute to radiation leakage, which will not only affect miners but also affect the public. The whole nuclear power industry is increasingly susceptible to safety regulations of its worst performers. Therefore, if a nuclear power accident occurs in one part of the world, it automatically provokes an anti-nuclear backlash across the world, especially among investors and the public. Since nuclear reactors are not immune to such incidents, nuclear energy is not a sustainable energy source.
Nuclear Waste Disposal
The second issue demonstrating why nuclear energy is unsustainable is disposal of nuclear wastes. Cavanagh & Cochran (2013) state that effective disposal of nuclear waste would require thousands of plutonium fueled reactors that function for hundreds of years. This is likely to contribute to increased releases of radioactive material to the environment because of operations of these reactors with regards to fuel processing and fabricating facilities. While proponents correctly argue that waste disposal is a political issue, the long-term waste repository of nuclear energy is increasingly complex because of the potential impact of nuclear waste on the environment. Moreover, the lack of an effective nuclear waste disposal technology and framework compounds the problem while demonstrating its unsuitability.
Risk of Proliferation
In a world that is increasingly vulnerable to security threats and challenges because of development of sophisticated weapons by criminals, nuclear energy is not a sustainable energy source since it enhances the risk of proliferation of nuclear weapons. The proliferation of these weapons will be brought by the probable expansion on nuclear power plants and technologies. In essence, expansion of nuclear power plants necessitates development of more facilities for enriching uranium, which in turn enhances security risks and threats from nuclear weapons. Nuclear renaissance will significantly affect current measures towards anti-proliferation of nuclear weapons. If nuclear energy is adopted as an alternative source of energy, aggressive and hostile nations are likely to capitalize on this fact to develop nuclear weapons that could be used for mass destruction and therefore exacerbate security risks.
Huge Costs of Development
The financial implications of developing and maintaining nuclear power plants support the case against nuclear energy as a sustainable source of power. In the past few decades, the development and expansion of nuclear power plants has remained stagnant because of the financial costs. Actually, nuclear power plants have not been developed in the recent past because of their technical and financial risks (Kemfert et al., 2015, p.621). As compared to other alternatives, nuclear energy would require enormous investments from governments and other investors, which makes it very expensive and unsustainable. Therefore, nuclear energy is very expensive in comparison to renewable energy sources and unsustainable.
In conclusion, nuclear energy has generated considerable traction in the recent past because it does not entail emission of carbon. However, the consideration of this source of power as a clean and safe energy has generated arguments and counterarguments. Proponents of this claim support their view on the premise that it’s environmentally friendly while opponents incorporate other views to support their claims. An analysis of these claims demonstrates that nuclear energy is unsustainable when considered from an economic and social perspective.
Cavanagh, R. & Cochran, T. (2013, November 6). Nuclear Energy Film Overstates Positives, Underplays Negatives. CNN. Retrieved February 9, 2016, from http://edition.cnn.com/2013/11/06/opinion/pandora-nuclear-energy-opinion-cavanagh-cochran/
Kemfert et al. (2015, November). European Climate Targets Achievable Without Nuclear Power. DIW Economic Bulletin, 5(47), 619-625.
Koffler, D. (2008, July 8). The Case for Nuclear Power. The Guardian. Retrieved February 9, 2016, from http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2008/jul/08/nuclearpower.energy
Totty, M. (2008, June 30). The Case For and Against Nuclear Power. The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved February 9, 2016, from http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB121432182593500119
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