Breaking down the nuclear debate


How our generation approaches and deals with the issue of energy policy will inevitably be a large component in ensuring a prosperous economy for future generations. The information we now hold in regards to pollution, climate change, geopolitics and health risks is not, unfortunately, pointing us in any specific policy direction.

\"\"In the midst of the context in which environmentalists, businesses, legislators and lobbyists debate the state of energy policy, the argument to further develop nuclear energy is again being propelled to the limelight.

The debate over nuclear power and its effects on pollution, businesses, safety and ultimately individuals isn\’t really complicated if one\’s interested in facts and history. Facts are stubborn things.

After a massive accident at the Three Mile Island Nuclear Plant in Pennsylvania, the public has been incredibly skeptical of building nuclear plants. No one was injured in the event, but the effect on public perception was higher than anyone could\’ve predicted. Not a single application for a new nuclear power plant building permit was submitted for almost 30 years.

Still, the nuclear industry persevered through negative media attention and claimed improved oversight and potential to improve air quality. Nuclear energy advocates such as Barclay Jones argued that shutting down nuclear plants would require more fossil fuels to be burned, causing far greater quantities of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and fine particles of soot to be spewed into the atmosphere.

Regardless of whether Jones is correct or not, the nuclear industry has simply failed to find a long term solution for disposing of its radioactive waste. Considering that nuclear reactors in the U.S supply over 20% of our total electricity (second largest energy source) and a large reactor produces about 1.5 tonnes of fission products per year, radioactive waste is a major concern for environmentalists.

The Bush Administration naturally didn\’t hesitate to roll over any environmental concerns and vigorously supported atomic energy development. It formed the National Energy Policy Development Group (NEPD), headed by then Vice President Dick Cheney in 2001. The NEPD produced an energy policy report in May, 2001, and a long legal battle ensued, which eventually resulted in the release of the documents to the public.

\"\" Environmental lawyers at the Natural Resource Defense Council uncovered that atomic industry lobbyists were integral in forming the president’s energy policy and his decision to launch a so-called nuclear revival. This shouldn\’t come as any surprise given the attention given by the Bush Administration to special interests. The industry grew substantially for 7 years, as evidenced by its reception of billions in government subsidies and construction of over 30 new reactors.

Furthermore, the United States\’ current decision in regards to displacing waste is to store it in Nevada. Despite protests in the region about the role of government and health concerns, President Bush signed a bill to over-rule the objections of the State of Nevada. The White House argued, \”Increasing American nuclear energy enables the country to reduce the amount of oil it imports from other parts of the world and provides reliable base-load power.\”

We have clearly observed what position has been taken by the government on this issue. Now, what stance have environmentalist groups taken in the debate, and is their level of scrutiny placed on the atomic industry too high?

The debate whether or not the effect of nuclear power is positive or negative concerning climate change is almost nonexistant. Dr. John McCarthy, retired professor at Stanford University, wrote, \”A major advantage of nuclear energy is that it doesn\’t put carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere. How much of an advantage depends on how bad the CO2 problem turns out to be.\” It\’s now accepted that CO2 emissions are a notorious threat to sustainability.

\"\"Compared to other major existing energy sources, such as coal and oil, nuclear power emits almost no greenhouse gasses, nitrogen oxide or sulfur dioxide– the primary components of air pollution.

The major criticism from the environmentalist movement has come from concerns on the industry\’s impact on earthly resources. The Union of Concerned Scientists voiced concerns that to keep cool, a typical 1,000 megawatt reactor requires about 476,500 gallons of water per minute be pumped through its system, a number that could nearly triple in some of the new, larger facilities. In some systems, the warmed water returned to its source — lake, river, ocean — contains low-level radioactivity. Consequently, aquatic life circulating through the cooling system can be killed.

As of 2010, the radioactive waste produced by reactors across the country will be stored primarily in Nevada. Environmentalists who are critical of atomic energy have justifiably pointed out that nuclear reactors do emit dangerous radiation. How dangerous? A report by Bernard Cohen, LA Times, compares the risks of exposure to atomic radiation to their effect on life expectancy. Cohen lists smoking one pack of cigarettes per day as 44,000 times more dangerous than living under exposure of atomic electricity consumption.

\"\"Yet, one still has to answer the question, would I be comfortable residing near the radioactive waste stored in the heartland of Nevada?

The answer just might lead to your position on what\’s arguably one of the most controversial debates for energy sustainability.