Beyond Sustainable Economy: Nuclear Power – The Friendliest of all?

Published: 29.08.2017

[1] All existing nuclear power plants involve nuclear fission or the splitting of atoms rather than nuclear fusion or the combining of atoms. In fission reactions heavy nuclei release energy when they split into medium-sized nuclei, while in fusion reactions light nuclei release energy when they fuse into medium-sized nuclei - first of all hydrogen into helium (as is said to happen in stars). The energy released from nuclear fission reactions is some 10 million times larger than that from chemical reactions. About 2000 tons of uranium-235 can release as much energy as burning 4.2 billion tons - or 1 cubic mile - of oil (Bryce, 2008, 212).

Like fossil fuel power stations, nuclear power plants are thermal plants: the heat energy released from the nuclear fuel turns water into steam which spins a turbine which drives an electric generator. [As of July 2015, 30 countries worldwide are operating 438 nuclear reactors for electricity generation and 67 new nuclear plants are under construction in 15 countries. Nuclear power plants provided 10.9 percent of the world's electricity production in 2012.] France obtains 75% of its electricity from nuclear power. [The EU as a whole heads for 25% and India also for 25%. The USA has 19,5% from nuclear power, and is the world's largest producer of nuclear power, accounting for more than 30% of worldwide nuclear generation of electricity. The country's 100 nuclear reactors produced 798 billion kWh in 2014, over 19% of total electrical output. There are now 99 units operable (98.7 GWe) and five under construction] (world-nuclear.org). Nuclear propulsion is used in several ships and submarines, and some space probes are powered by radioisotope thermoelectric generators.

Known uranium resources are expected to last for over 80 years; further exploration will undoubtedly uncover more reserves, and if the cost of extracting uranium from seawater falls, there will be no danger of scarcity. New, safer and more powerful reactor designs are coming to the market. One of them uses Thorium-232 instead of uranium; Thorium is four times more abundant than uranium and easier to mine, and there is enough to power reactors for thousands of years. Whereas standard reactors use only about 1% of natural uranium, thorium can be completely burned up, and does not produce any plutonium. Plutonium in itself could be used for making a nuclear bomb, [fall in the hands of terrorists and rogue regimes, and in itself belongs to the most toxic chemicals on earth even apart from its radioactivity, producing potentially lethal gamma rays) - though scientific and pseudo-scientific opinions about how toxic differ greatly. Though no precise data can be given, and it is also unsure how many people have been killed or suffered diseases from exposure to plutonium releasing through accidents. Storage as waste from nuclear reactors is also a major problem. However it may ultimately be agreed on to be, it would be a boon to not have it. So this is a positive for thorium reactors.]  Far less waste is produced than with traditional nuclear reactors, and it's 'only' dangerous for 300 years. It is physically impossible for a thorium plant to melt down, because if the power goes out the system naturally cools off (embeddedlab.csuohio.edu).

[This would take away of the world-wide and deeply ingrained criticism of nuclear power use by environmentalists and other concerned groups of people. Due to various reasons - including the one that no weapons can be produced from Thorium reactors, and therefore research and development have not been subsidized by some countries - a few technical problems which have to (and can) be tackled, and perhaps the fact that probably less long-term revenues for the producers can be expected by them, thorium reactors have hardly emerged so far. However the Chinese are building a few of such reactors, and also India - a country rich in natural thorium is building a small thorium reactor. From the point of view of ahimsa, India and other countries with ethical concerns should support thorium reactors, because they are safer, can produce no weapons or weapons grade fuel, produce less poison in case of casualties (no plutonium) and are less dependent on the few countries having Uranium. Thorium is more widely available on the planet.]

Building a large nuclear plant costs billions of dollars, but the long-term operating costs are lower than those of coal and natural gas plants, because nuclear fuel costs a fraction of coal and gas. The per-kilowatt construction costs of nuclear power plants are similar to those of constructing offshore wind projects. But while nuclear plants usually have a capacity factor of 90%, offshore wind turbines only produce power about a third of the time. Solar power is even more expensive than offshore wind. A new 2700 MW nuclear plant at the South Texas Project costs $13 billion, but to build a solar plant with the same capacity rating would cost about $16.2 billion. And in practice the solar facility would produce at least one-third less energy than the nuclear reactor (Bryce, 262-4).

According to the International Energy Agency, new nuclear power plants that begin operations between 2015 and 2020 will be able to produce electricity for about $72 per megawatt-hour, whereas onshore wind costs will be about $94 per megawatt-hour. Nuclear will be among the cheapest options, even when compared to coal-fired power plants that use high-efficiency or ultra-supercritical combustion (Bryce, 259).

When operating, nuclear plants emit no CO2, but huge amounts of concrete and steel are required in their construction. The IPCC estimates that the total life-cycle greenhouse gas emissions (including construction, fuel processing and decommissioning) per unit of electricity produced from nuclear power are less than 40 g CO2-equivalent per kWh, similar to those for renewable energy sources (ipcc.ch).

Environmental groups tend to oppose nuclear power on the grounds that it is too expensive and dangerous. Greenpeace International says that nuclear power is 'an unacceptable risk to the environment and to humanity' and calls for all nuclear power plants to be closed down (greenpeace.org). However, a number of high-profile environmentalists disagree (Bryce, 257-8). For instance, James Lovelock, who pioneered the Gaia theory that the earth is a self-regulating organism, believes that nuclear power is the only viable option for large-scale reductions in CO2 emissions, and says that nuclear energy has proved to be the safest of all energy sources.

Nuclear power has also been endorsed by astronomer Patrick Moore, a cofounder of Greenpeace, who says: 'Nuclear energy is the only non-greenhouse-gas-emitting power source that can effectively replace fossil fuels while satisfying the world's increasing demand for energy' (Bell, 2011). Both Lovelock and Moore are associated with Environmentalists For Nuclear Energy (EFN). The nuclear industry, too, is trying to capitalize on current irrational fears about 'CO2 pollution' by highlighting that nuclear power plants emit no CO2.

The volume of solid waste produced by nuclear reactors is relatively small, but a small portion is highly radioactive. In the UK, the ash from 10 coal-fired power stations would have a mass of 4 million tons per year (about 40 litres per person per year), while nuclear waste from Britain's 10 nuclear power stations has a volume of just 0.84 liters per person per year. Only 25 milliliters of this is highly radioactive. Over a lifetime the total amount of high-level waste would cover just one tenth of a square kilometer to a depth of 1 meter. By contrast, municipal waste in the UK amounts to 517 kg per year per person, and hazardous waste 83 kg per year per person (MacKay, 69-70, 367). In countries with nuclear power, radioactive wastes make up less than 1% of total industrial toxic wastes, much of which remains hazardous indefinitely (world-nuclear.org).

High-level nuclear waste is first stored in cooling ponds at the reactor site for 40 to 50 years, by which time the level of radioactivity has dropped 1000-fold. In some European countries this waste is then reprocessed, with the uranium and plutonium being separated off for reuse. This allows about 97% of the spent fuel to be recycled, leaving only 3% as high-level waste. The plutonium is sub-weapons grade but can be used in fresh mixed oxide (MOX) fuel for nuclear reactors. If the spent fuel is reprocessed, the separated waste is vitrified and sealed inside stainless steel canisters. The final disposal of vitrified wastes, or of used fuel assemblies that have not been reprocessed, requires their long-term isolation from the environment, usually in stable geological formations some 500 meters deep. After being buried for about 1000 years, the radioactivity will have dropped to a level similar to that of naturally-occurring uranium ore, though in a more concentrated form (world-nuclear.org).

At present, waste is mainly stored at individual reactor sites, though centralized underground repositories that are well guarded and managed would be preferable. In the US the construction of a permanent underground storage at Yucca Mountain in Nevada has effectively been cancelled.

As for (hot) nuclear fusion, although tens of billions of dollars have been invested in research, there are still no immediate prospects of it becoming a viable source of power generation anytime soon, mainly due to the enormous temperatures (up to 300 million degrees Celsius) and pressures required. In the 1970s fusion power was said to be 30 years away. Today, it is still said to be 30 years away.

Safety [- the ahimsa factor]

The worst nuclear accident to date was the disaster at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in the Soviet Union in April 1986. The United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) puts the total deaths from radiation at about 66 as of 2008 (unscear.org). As for the number of people who could eventually die of radiation exposure as a result of Chernobyl, a 2005 report gave an estimate of 4000 (who.int).

In 1979 one of the two units at the nuclear plant on Three Mile Island in the US suffered a partial meltdown. The accident resulted in no deaths or injuries to plant workers or members of nearby communities, but the bad publicity held back the development of nuclear power in the US for decades.

Fears about nuclear accidents have been stoked more recently by events at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in JapanThe plant's six boiling-water reactors are second-generation technology, nearly 40 years old. Many countries are now reevaluating their nuclear energy programs. Every energy industry has its share of accidents. In the fossil fuel industry there are drilling-rig disasters, oil spills from shipping accidents, helicopters lost at sea, pipeline fires, refinery explosions, coal mine accidents, and so on. According to EU figures, coal, lignite and oil have the highest death rates, followed by peat and biomass power, with death rates above 1 per gigawatt-year (GWy). Nuclear and wind come out best, with death rates below 0.2 per GWy (MacKay, 168). WHAT ABOUT SOLAR?

In the US, nuclear power has caused no known deaths, whereas candles kill 126 people a year, and alcohol 100,000. In Britain nuclear power has generated 200 GWy of electricity and the nuclear industry has had 1 fatality - an impressively low death rate compared with the fossil fuel industry. For comparison, 3000 people per year die on Britain's roads. Worldwide, the death rate from nuclear power is estimated at 2.4 deaths per GWy, and the mortality rate is expected to fall in the future. In the mid-1990s the mortality rate associated with wind power was 3.5 deaths per GWy, but the figure had dropped to 1.3 deaths per GWy by 2000 (MacKay, 168, 175). In 2004 an estimated 1.2 million people were killed and 50 million more were injured in motor vehicle collisions worldwide.

From 12 to 28 March 2011, while headlines were dominated by events at Fukushima, a total of 47 coal miners were killed in four accidents in China, 47 in two accidents in Pakistan, and 1 in an accident in the USA - [which was at best treated as secondary news by the press. Sensation attracts more readers. But we should be rational and realistic, and not just follow our vague feelings and prejudices.] Most of the accidents involved gas explosions (en.wordpress.com). In China the death rate in coal mines, per ton of coal delivered, is 50 times that of most nations; there were 2600 fatalities in Chinese mines in 2009 alone.

Radiation and health

Heavy, unstable atoms undergoing radioactive decay emit three types of ionizing radiation: alpha particles (helium nuclei), which cannot penetrate the skin and can be stopped by a sheet of paper, but are dangerous in the lung; beta particles (electrons), which can penetrate into the body but can be stopped by a sheet of aluminum foil; and gamma radiation (very high-frequency electromagnetic radiation), which can go right through the body and requires several centimeters of lead or concrete, or a meter or so of water, to stop it.

The radiation absorbed by any material is measured in grays (Gy): 1 Gy = 1 J/kg. The radiation absorbed by humans - known as the effective dose - is usually expressed in sieverts (Sv) or millisieverts (mSv); it is calculated by multiplying the absorbed dose (in grays) by a factor that depends on the type of radiation and the type of tissue absorbing the radiation. One gray of alpha radiation, for example, will have a greater effect than one gray of beta radiation on a particular type of tissue, but one sievert of both produces the same biological effect. (In the US: 1 rad = 0.01 Gy; 1 rem = 0.01 Sv, or 10 mSv.)

The natural background radiation exposure from sun, rocks and building materials in the US is 3.6 mSv/year on average. The following table gives the typical dose for various additional exposures (niehs.nih.gov; new.ans.org).

Dose Activity
2.4 mSv/yr Working in the nuclear industry
0.01 mSv/yr Exposure to public from the nuclear industry
1.5 mSv/yr Airline crew flying 1200 miles a week
9 mSv/yr Airline crew flying to Tokyo (1 trip per week)
0.10 mSv Chest x-ray
7.0 mSv Chest CT scan
0.015 mSv/yr Exposure to public from accident at Three Mile Island
0.015 mSv/yr Exposure to TV viewers watching an average of 10 hours per week

The main contributor to background radiation exposure is usually radon gas from radioactive sources deep underground. Many healing springs and baths derive their benefits from low-dose radiation in the water, usually in the form of absorbed radon gas. In Europe, the use of hot springs with high radon content dates back some 6000 years (radonmine.com).

There have been no deaths or cases of radiation sickness from the Fukushima nuclear accident. However, 146 emergency workers received radiation doses of over 100 mSv during the crisis, and will be closely monitored (world-nuclear.org).

[Though many local factors have to be taken into account, the general conclusion is clear: nuclear energy (probably better from Thorium reactors) is the safest for man and the cleanest for the planet. It takes the least space, is the cleanest, creates no direct pollution, brings no CO2 in the atmosphere, produces no sound and takes little space. Nuclear reactors can serve their purpose almost invisibly. But, in the case of Uranium reactors, always carries the risk of being used to produce the most terrible weapon we have - if politics become stressed in centuries to come, or if scholars become terrorists. What do we know of the psychology of generations yet to be born? So if we choose for nuclear energy, let us choose for Thorium as a fuel. Still, even in the best case, it is not 'given', but is taken by artificial means.

From a aparigrahic point of view, solar energy is the best: we just accept what is freely given, without having to dig mines and produce hi-tech factories. But solar parks take large stretches of land or sea, and may be highly disturbing in the landscape. There are enough deserts and seas though. Large parks can influence the local microclimate: local heating of the atmosphere and upward moving air, influencing natural rainfall patterns. In can be done simply and on a local and small scale, from house to house, even for one individual lamp or stove. If everyone uses their roofs, no extra space is required. Or it can be done more efficiently on intermediate scale, or it can be done on a large scale, but still independent of international policies. Large scale will be necessary to fuel industries - but it can be done close-by of far off, because electricity can be transported in a cheap way. The mortality risk of solar energy is no doubt higher than in the case of nuclear: accidents will happen during production as well as during local construction of the panels and when taking them down for replacement. Lands and waters around factories of solar panels may become highly polluted and 'dead', locally. If not efficiently recycled, waste, especially from old photovoltaic solar panels may become a big problem. Solar energy can be caught and safely stored as hot water, which can store more Joules per volume than most other materials. We can choose between highly efficient solar cells dependent on rare chemical elements, or just use blackened plates, and heat water to drive turbines. Every individual country can produce its own solar devices.

What would be the best for all that lives? What is the safest? What would exploit the Earth the least? What is infinitely available? Is it the Sun?

Footnotes
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Sources


Title: Beyond Sustainable Economy
Author: Dr. Rudi Jansma, Dr. Sushma Singhvi
Publisher: Prakrit Bharati Academy
Edition:
2016


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  1. Ahimsa
  2. Body
  3. Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant
  4. Environment
  5. Space
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