Summer II 2012: Group 1

Abstract

Few forms of energy conjure up as many emotions as nuclear power. The hope of a cutback in carbon dioxide emission is often counteracted by the fear of an eminent disaster. Much of the discrepancies are due to a lack of knowledge and inaccurate depictions by the media. Many people do not realize the importance of nuclear power as a source of environmentally staple form of energy. As of August 2012 the 104 power plants in the United States produced over 20% of the total electrical output. Coal is the only form of energy that surpasses nuclear in terms of production. Supporters of nuclear energy argue that it provides a sustainable form of energy that reduces the amount of carbon emissions while those against it argue that it is dangerous and accidents have occurred in the past. With adequate safety regulations, it can be very safe and financially stable.

Introduction

How Nuclear Power Works

Initially, nuclear power sounds intimidating. The word nuclear holds an aura of mystery and misconception that can be diminished by a firmer understanding. Overall, the process is very similar to that of a coal power plant except for the reaction that takes place. Nuclear power plants use the heat obtained through nuclear fission to provide about 200 MeV of energy per atom. Uranium-235, one of the most common fuels used, decays naturally by alpha radiation. This process of an atom splitting up into a molecule with two neutrons and a proton can be sped up with the collision of another neutron. As the atom splits, radiation is released. The radiation causes water to heat up and form steam. This steam turns turbines that turn generators. Finally, electrical power is produced. This electrical power is used to operate appliances.

The nuclear power plant looks very similar to the figure shown below. The containment structure is made to ensure that there are not any radiation leaks. The nuclear fission reaction occurs inside this structure in the reactor. From there the heat from the reactor is transferred to the steam generator that then flows to the turbine. As the turbine turns, energy is generated from the generator. After the steam has been used at the turbine, it flows down to the condenser where it is transferred back from gas to liquid. This picture was obtained from depatebedia.org.

Nuclear_reactor_diagram.jpg

Background

Pros of Nuclear power

In a world where the depletion of fossil fuels and preservation of the environment are huge concerns, nuclear power is a viable solution since it is produces very minimal air pollution and there is enough uranium left to last much longer than coal.
One of the major benefits of nuclear power is its environmental impact. It is very different from coal which spews out dangerous particles into the air. Air pollution is classified as the release of car bon dioxide, sulfur dioxides, and nitrogen dioxides into the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas that over time increases the temperature of the Earth. Sulfur dioxides and nitrogen dioxides cause acid rain. Nuclear power is in compliance with the Clean Air Act of 1970, an act made to protect the Earth’s air quality and reduce the amount of emissions released by power plants of all types.

A major issue with coal is the eminent depletion. The World Coal Organization estimates that with the current production of energy, coal will last another 118 years. Even though this is much more than the estimated 50-60 years expected of natural gas, it is still not sufficient. Uranium, the primary source for nuclear power is expected to last at least 230 years. This is with the current technology and modern extraction methods. This is expected to improve and extend the amount of time uranium will last.

Although, nuclear power plants are more expensive to build, they have been calculated to produce more kilowatts than coal, wind or solar for less money. This means in the long run they are economically sufficient.

Cons of Nuclear Power

There is no way to produce 100% clean energy. Nuclear power has a non-biodegradable by product known as nuclear waste. Its long term storage is very expensive. Since the amount of radiation released decreases so slowly, it would have to be stored safely for thousands of years. Also, in a commercial plant that produces tons of waste within a short period of time, it is often very difficult to keep track of. There is a possibility that this waste could be used to create a dirty bomb. This would mean that nuclear power plants would have to be carefully monitored to ensure the safety of a nation.

Worldwide there have been around 99 accidents due to nuclear power plants. These accidents led to large exposure of humans and the environment to radioactivity. The Environmental Protection Agency states that prolonged exposure of radiation can cause burns or radiation sickness. Symptoms include nausea, weakness, hair loss, skin burns and reduced organ function. If the amount of radiation is large enough this can even lead to death.

Nuclear Power Debate

The controversy surrounding nuclear power has been occurring since 1970’s and still has not been completely resolved. There are those that believe the chance of a carbon emission free and sustainable form of energy outweighs any dangers that might occur with nuclear waste. There are those that do not have the same point of view. It is debated how much of a risk nuclear waste and the mining of uranium poses and whether or not there are better options available. The reliability of nuclear power is also debated where there are people that argue for both ends of the spectrum.

The Point

Although, nuclear power has had various mishaps in the past, with the proper regulations and care, it can be very safe. It releases less radiation than coal does during normal circumstances. Financially, it tends to be beneficial in the long run even though the initial cost of building the plant tends to be costly.

Safety

Arguably the most frequent sources of criticism against nuclear power involve the safety of the plant. Plant safety can attributed to two major sources: government regulations and technological advancements. Despite having regulations and safety controls in place, there have been three major nuclear disasters. It’s important to know why past mistakes happened in order to understand why nuclear power is safe to use on American soil.

United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission

Government regulations exist to ensure that nuclear power plants have the latest safety measures in place at all times. In America, these regulations are defined by the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission, or NRC. The NRC was established in 1974 by 42 U.S.C. §5841(a). According to 42 U.S.C. §5841(f), the NRC replaces the Atomic Energy Commission and handles all licensing of nuclear activities.

The NRC is the only agency in America that can permit or deny any entity from working with nuclear materials in the U.S. Without a license, one cannot build, operate, or decommission a nuclear plant.[1]

Inspections of nuclear plants are also handled by the NRC. Approximately 2,000 inspections occur each year, and failed inspections can result in a plant losing its license and ability to operate.[2]

The NRC investigates all accusations of wrongdoing involving a nuclear power plant.[3] These investigations are led by an Office of Investigations Special Agent, or OI Special Agent. These OI Special Agents take part in many of the same investigative techniques as ordinary members of law enforcement but have the added benefit of being supported with technical knowledge from the NRC.

When nuclear power plants lose their license or simply need to be taken down, the NRC is responsible for managing the process of decommissioning the site.[4] It’s important for this process to be closely monitored because the radioactive materials found at nuclear plants can be deadly if they’re not disposed in a safe manner.

Past Failures

Analyzing past failures is an effective way to determine if those same mistakes are likely to occur again. This section covers the three worst accidents in the history of nuclear power: Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima Daiichi.

Generally, a disaster in a nuclear power plant is a meltdown. Sources of meltdown can include operator mistakes, natural disasters, and acts of terrorism. The ramifications of a meltdown can disastrous, including death, injury, monetary damages, and loss of power. For each of the three disasters, the problems, ramifications, and potential for future mitigation will be analyzed.

Three Mile Island

Three Mile Island Nuclear Generating Station is an American nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania.[5] On March 28th, 1979, its reactor number two, a Babcock and Wilcox reactor,[6] underwent a partial nuclear meltdown.[7]

The initial problem that resulted in the partial meltdown was a failure in the main pump feeding the steam generator.[6] In addition to the primary pumps, nuclear plants also have auxiliary pumps that take over when the primary pumps fail. However, on the day of the partial meltdown, that backup mechanism was taken offline for service. Running the system while the auxiliary pumps aren’t online is a serious violation of NRC rules. If plant management had followed NRC rules, the operators would have had enough time to shut down the system before a meltdown could occur.

Although there were no known deaths[8] [9] resulting from the violation of NRC rules, there were some other ramifications. The cleanup process cost over $1 billion USD and took fourteen years to complete.[10] Additionally, there is now a black mark in the history of nuclear power that only time can diminish.

This disaster can be prevented in the future by simply following NRC regulations. The NRC was only five years old at the time of the meltdown and there hasn’t been any other major disasters at plants under NRC regulation ever since.

Chernobyl

Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant was located in Chernobyl, Ukraine. On April 26th, 1986, the roof of the room housing reactor four blew off, releasing toxic radiation into the environment.[11]

Unlike American nuclear reactors, the reactors at Chernobyl had no real containment structure. As a result, when an explosion occurred during a test designed to improve a safety issue[11] (which wasn’t even authorized by Soviet regulators[12]), the radioactive materials went straight through the roof and into surrounding areas.

Unlike the accident at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl may result in as many as five hundred thousand deaths.[13] Large portions of the surrounding areas will have to remain evacuated for decades and the worst areas will take even longer.[14] The accident is estimated to have cost more than $13 billion.

According to the NRC, U.S. reactors are not susceptible to the problems that caused the Chernobyl explosions.[15] Similar to Three Mile Island, the problems might have been prevented if proper protocol were followed. Instead, regulators weren’t notified of the unsafe testing and many people lost their lives.

Fukushima Daiichi

The most recent nuclear disaster occurred at the Fukushima I Nuclear Power Plant on March 11th, 2011.[16] Three General Electric Mark I reactors underwent a full meltdown[17] after a 9.0-magnitude earthquake and a 45-foot tsunami.[18]

After the plant was damaged[18] by the two natural disasters, the operators successfully completed a shutdown to stop the nuclear chain reaction inside the steam generator.[16] However, radioactive byproducts inside the reactor eventually resulted in the three full meltdowns.

Like Three Mile Island, this disaster resulted in no known deaths and might have as few as 130 future deaths from cancer.[17] Additionally, Japan is spending $13 billion on decontamination.

Moving forward, American plants will be prepared for similar natural disasters in order to comply with new NRC regulations designed to mitigate the problems with Fukushima.[19] All licensees are now required to reassess their plants to make sure they are in compliance with new NRC regulations.

Financial Considerations

There are many factors to consider when determining if nuclear power is economically beneficial or financially irresponsible. Naturally, there are arguments that range across a broad spectrum, and it is difficult to determine which is most accurate. Breaking up the factors into two categories offers a simpler way to analyze the financial effects of nuclear power. These categories are:
- Initial costs
- Anticipated return on investments

The initial costs of using nuclear power is a very in-depth topic. It spans from the costs of necessary research to advance the idea all the way to the costs of physically building nuclear power plants.

Research is an absolute necessity if nuclear power is ever going to be the primary supplier of electricity in the world. Nuclear power is still a relatively new idea, which means there is still a lot of information that needs to be discovered in order to maximize the efficiency and safety of nuclear power. Unfortunately, the only way to discover this information is through research. Also because of the high volatility of the materials and new technology that is required to study nuclear power, research is far from cheap. It is difficult to say exactly how much this research costs, but the question is, “is it worth it?”.

The cost of physically building power plants is another major component is determining the financial effects of nuclear power. Like the cost of research, building nuclear power plants are not cheap due to factors affiliated with nuclear power and how much we know about it. The estimated cost to build a nuclear power plant today is in the range of five to ten billion dollars. This quantity does not include the costs of maintenance and operations after completion of the power plant. It is also important to consider the impact that a multi-billion dollar loan has on an economy such as the one we are experiencing now. The defaulting on a loan of that magnitude would be detrimental, and unlike research funding cannot simply be stopped. The cost of building a new nuclear power plant would be an upfront cost, so there is no opportunity to cut your losses later on.

While the initial costs may appear to be too expensive and unreasonable, there seems to be a lot of promise that in the long run it will be worth it. In other words the anticipated return on the investment of producing nuclear power plants is worth the initial costs. According to an article by Nuclear Fissionary, nuclear power over all is the second cheapest form of electricity production as seen below.

total-cost-electricity-production-per-kwh.jpg

(image from: NuclearFissionary.com)

This projection considers the seven most popular forms of electricity production along the same basis. It takes into account construction costs, the actual electricity production costs, and the decommissioning costs (specifically for nuclear) and determines the final cost per kilowatt-hours.

Based on these findings, it is clear hydroelectric power is the most cost effective form of electricity production followed by nuclear power. Unfortunately, hydroelectric power is not available everywhere. It can only be used in places that have a flowing water source with enough flow to turn the massive hydraulic turbines. This greatly limits the number of sites where hydroelectric power could be produced. On the other hand, nuclear power has almost no geographic restrictions other than those placed on it by government agencies. So, when considering other forms of production that can be performed almost anywhere, it is clear nuclear power is the best option.

Conclusion

It is clear that nuclear power has a very high initial cost due to the aspects associated with nuclear power. The cost of research, construction, and everything else involved with producing nuclear power on a large scale is expensive. However, with all things considered, when compared to traditional forms of energy production, nuclear power is much more inexpensive to produce. Additionally, despite the safety concerns by the general public, nuclear power is, in fact, very safe. It is on these grounds that despite the high initial costs, and bad reputation with respect to safety, nuclear power is a wise investment in the long run.

Bibliography

Works Cited

"14-Year Cleanup at Three Mile Island Concludes." The New York Times. The New York Times, 15 Aug. 1993. Web. 10 Aug. 2012. <http://www.nytimes.com/1993/08/15/us/14-year-cleanup-at-three-mile-island-concludes.html>.

Bugess, Joanna. "Energy Conservation." Curiosity. 10 Pros and Cons of Nuclear Power, 9 Apr. 2009. Web. 10 Aug. 2012. <http://curiosity.discovery.com/topic/energy-conservation/10-pros-cons-nuclear-power5.htm>.

"The Chernobyl Disaster." BBC News. BBC, 20 June 2005. Web. 10 Aug. 2012. <http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/shared/spl/hi/guides/456900/456957/html/nn2page1.stm>.

"Customer Service." Timesonline.com. Times Online, 21 Apr. 2011. Web. 10 Aug. 2012. <http://www.timesonline.com/special_sections/chernobyl/april-meltdown-at-chernobyl/article_60a3b88a-6c51-11e0-bea6-001a4bcf6878.html>.

De Vries, Lloyd. "No Cancer Spike In Three Mile Island." CBSNews. CBS Interactive, 11 Feb. 2009. Web. 10 Aug. 2012. <http://www.cbsnews.com/2100-204_162-527826.html>.

Fetter, Steve. "How Long Will the World's Uranium Supplies Last?: Scientific American." How Long Will the World's Uranium Supplies Last?: Scientific American. Scientific American, 26 Jan. 2009. Web. 10 Aug. 2012. <http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=how-long-will-global-uranium-deposits-last>.

"Licensing." NRC:. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Aug. 2012. <http://www.nrc.gov/about-nrc/regulatory/licensing.html>.

"NEI: Nuclear Energy Institute." Nuclear Energy Institute. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Aug. 2012. <http://www.nei.org/>.
"Nuclear Energy." - The New York Times. The New York Times, 10 Aug. 2012. Web. 10 Aug. 2012.
<http://topics.nytimes.com/top/news/business/energy-environment/atomic-energy/index.html>.

"A Pump Failure and Claxon Alert." Washington Post. Washington Post Ccompany, 1979. Web. 10 Aug. 2012. <http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/national/longterm/tmi/stories/ch1.htm>.

"Radiation Exposure: MedlinePlus." U.S National Library of Medicine. U.S. National Library of Medicine, n.d. Web. 10 Aug. 2012. <http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/radiationexposure.html>.

Staff, The CNN Wire, Yoko Wakatsuki, and Kyung Lah. "3 Nuclear Reactors Melted down after Quake, Japan Confirms." CNN. Cable News Network, 07 June 2011. Web. 10 Aug. 2012. <http://edition.cnn.com/2011/WORLD/asiapcf/06/06/japan.nuclear.meltdown/index.html?iref=NS1>.

STRICKLAND, Eliza. "Explainer: What Went Wrong in Japan's Nuclear Reactors." - IEEE Spectrum. IEEE, 16 Mar. 2011. Web. 10 Aug. 2012. <http://spectrum.ieee.org/tech-talk/energy/nuclear/explainer-what-went-wrong-in-japans-nuclear-reactors>.

"Too Little Known on Chernobyl." BBC News. BBC, 19 Apr. 2006. Web. 10 Aug. 2012. <http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/health/4922508.stm>.

Totty, Micheal. "The Case For and Against Nuclear Power." The Wall Street Journal. N.p., 30 June 2008. Web. 10 Aug. 2012. <http://online.wsj.com/article/SB121432182593500119.html>.

Vidal, John. "Chernobyl Nuclear Accident: Figures for Deaths and Cancers Still in Dispute." The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 01 Oct. 2010. Web. 10 Aug. 2012. <http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2010/jan/10/chernobyl-nuclear-deaths-cancers-dispute>.

"Where Is Coal Found?" Coal Reserves, Coal Exploration. N.p., 2012. Web. 10 Aug. 2012. <http://www.worldcoal.org/coal/where-is-coal-found/>.


Jason Cayanong

Response:

I agree with using nuclear power as an alternative energy source but not as a permanent one. While the chance of nuclear meltdowns occurring is slim, they have happened even if some were due to human error. Using it over a long period of time gives that chance more time to happen. The cost of construction and production are the most appealing factors, however, it would be nice to convert to a free energy such as solar power. But since the cost of its construction is so high it makes it not a viable choice. Nuclear power is the perfect option to choose until we find a way to have completely free energy. But that slim chance of losing many lives is too significant to use nuclear power forever.
The following website is a pdf from an association against nuclear power. I’m not against it, I present it only to display the possibilities in a logical way:

http://www.ippnw-students.org/chernobyl/meltdown.pdf

Hopefully everyone agrees that nuclear power is a good source of energy only temporarily.


Micah Fulton

I also agree that nuclear power is definitely a powerful alternative to fossil fuels such as coal. In most cases, the benefits to nuclear power outweigh the possible downfalls. Nuclear power is a clean alternative to fossil fuels and the cost to maintain a plant is a benefit, but because of the bad perception of nuclear power due to catastrophes such as Chernobyl and Three Mile Island.
Unfortunately because of nuclear power's capability to harm the public is often placed on the same scale as an atomic weapon, Nuclear power will never be the most favorably viewed alternative fuel source.
The L.A Times did an interesting article on why nuclear power is still a good option. This might be a beneficial read for those interested, http://articles.latimes.com/2011/apr/10/opinion/la-oe-lynas-nukes-20110410


Joey Hutchins

A lot of great points are brought up in previous revisions regarding the inherent risks brought up by Nuclear energy. It is worth while to mention that the way in which we do nuclear right now is not the only way to do it, nor is it the safest. One can be quick to generalize nuclear to some key descriptors like radiation, explosions, nuclear bombs, and poisoned water. While most of these are true in the past, I urge others to take more research into nuclear power, and namely an alternative in the nuclear world which takes use of Thorium.

Similarly to the fact that there are multiple ways to do solar energy, wind energy, hydraulic energy, and coal energy - there are many different ways to do nuclear energy, and most of them are not discussed due to quick generalizations that nuclear is incredibly unsafe, which is not necessarily true.


Grant Sandlin

This article is very well written and could be used to educate someone who knows nothing about nuclear power. Most of the main topics regarding nuclear power were covered in your article; however I think a main point that could have been addressed was the mental barrier people have against nuclear power. While nuclear power is generally very safe, people are very afraid of it and that is one of the main reasons that it is not a mainstream power source in the world today. This article could have been improved upon if that topic was not only discussed, but possible solutions were suggested as well. I do believe that if nuclear power were ever to become big, people would have to accept it as a safe option. This could be solved through massive advertisement, or perhaps tours of nuclear facilities, etc. Overall it is a great article and could only be improved upon in my eyes by discussing the major point listed above.


Ashby Lee

Nuclear Power has proved itself as an effective and safe method of sustainable energy. Despite a few instances of error with nuclear energy, the US Navy as well as other countries such as Great Britain and Russia, have used nuclear power in submarines and aircraft carriers for the last few decades. The powerplants on these vessels are safe even with a number of people operating in close vicinity to nuclear radiation. Using these plants as a model and possibly expanding the size of them, nuclear energy would be a viable source of energy until other renewable energy sources like solar and wind can prove to be more cost efficient.

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