Nuclear Energy and How it Affects the Environment

As the dangers of fossil fuels and the threat that global warming is posing become more obvious, many people are looking for alternatives for energy sources. Nuclear power is a form of energy that could be cheap, simple to produce, and sustainable. It has the potential to power all of our homes and buildings, without greenhouse gas emissions. However, many people globally, especially politicians and investors, believe that nuclear energy is too risky and that alternative using energy sources would be better. As American journalist Michael Specter once said, “Humanity has nearly suffocated the globe with carbon dioxide, yet nuclear power plants that produce no such emissions are so mired in objections and obstruction that, despite renewed interest on every continent, it is unlikely another will be built in the United States.”

What is nuclear energy?

Nuclear energy is the energy found in the nucleus of an atom. When released, it can produce a substantial amount of power. Nuclear power plants take atoms, mostly ones found in uranium, and go through the process of nuclear fission. Nuclear fission is when atoms are split to release that energy. The energy from the nucleus is harvested, and that is what we turn into electricity and use to power buildings and homes. Nuclear fission creates a byproduct of nuclear energy: radioactive material. Radioactive material is hard to dispose of. When not done properly, it can have very serious effects on the surrounding people and animal populations, as well as the environment.

When did nuclear energy arise?

This was first discovered during World War II with the invention of the atomic bomb. After the war, many scientists thought that nuclear energy would be a healthier version of the extremely fatal weapon. When nuclear energy started becoming a more popular idea, nuclear power plants were built. In 1954, the first nuclear power plant designed to provide energy to a community was built in Obninsk, Russia. From there, a few more plants opened all around the world, including in the United States. Despite the success of the first nuclear power plants, many investors saw nuclear energy as a risky investment, as opposed to oil companies and other up-and-coming sustainable energy options like solar energy and wind power. Political leaders saw it as a risk because nuclear weapons could easily be manufactured at nuclear power plants without the knowledge of foreign countries. Others worried that the radioactive waste would contaminate the water and ground surrounding the power plants. Up until the 1970s, nuclear energy was not widely used and most were opposed. War in the Middle East, however, made the price of oil significantly rise, which made countries look for alternative energy sources. 

What are the positive environmental factors of using nuclear energy?

The biggest argument as to why we should use nuclear energy comes from the fact that no fossil fuels are released into the atmosphere. Approximately 65% of greenhouse gas emissions come from CO2 produced in the burning of fossil fuels and industrial processes. That’s just over 5 billion metric tons being released into our atmosphere annually. The effects of producing that many greenhouse gases are catastrophic and will lead to the temperature of the Earth being too hot. So the appeal to use a power source that produces no CO2 is extremely appealing. Another advantage of using nuclear power is the scale at which it produces energy. A single power plant has the potential to produce enough energy for 47,700 homes per year. The average ‘small town’ in the United States has 6,200 homes.

What are the negative environmental factors of using nuclear energy?

Radioactive waste, the byproduct of nuclear energy, can be very harmful to anyone or anything that comes in contact with it. It’s hard to dispose of, takes thousands of years to break down, and has the potential to alter DNA and cause sickness and disease in humans, animals, and plants. Some of the nuclear power plant accidents we think of when we discuss nuclear energy are: the Three Mile Island Nuclear Power Plant (near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania) that had a core meltdown in 1979, the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant explosion (formerly found in Pripyat, Ukraine) that happened in 1986 and the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant that had three nuclear meltdowns in 2011. The aftermath of these accidents was prolific, so it’s no wonder people are reluctant; using nuclear energy is risky.

Sources:

Kukreja, Rinkesh. “Dangers and Effects of Nuclear Waste Disposal.” Conserve Energy Future, 2021, https://www.conserve-energy-future.com/dangers-and-effects-of-nuclear-waste-disposal.php#:~:text=Although%20most%20of%20the%20time,generations%20of%20animal%20and%20plants. Accessed 10 May 2021.

Kukreja, Rinkesh. “Radioactive Waste: Various Types and Devastating Effects.” Conserve Energy Future, 2021, https://www.conserve-energy-future.com/types-of-radioactive-waste.php. Accessed 10 May 2021.

Kurzgesagt – In a Nutshell. Nuclear Energy Explained: How does it work? 1/3. 26 March 2015. Youtube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rcOFV4y5z8c. Accessed 10 May 2021.

National Geographic. “Nuclear Energy.” National Geographic, 24 May 2011, https://www.nationalgeographic.org/encyclopedia/nuclear-energy/#:~:text=Powered%20by-,Nuclear%20energy%20is%20the%20energy%20in%20the%20nucleus%2C%20or%20core,in%20an%20atom%27s%20dense%20nucleus. Accessed 10 May 2021.

United States Environmental Protection Agency. “Global Greenhouse Gas Emissions Data.” EPA, 2014, https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/global-greenhouse-gas-emissions-data. Accessed 10 May 2021.

U.S. Energy Information Administration. “How much electricity does an American home use?” eia, 9 October 2020, https://www.eia.gov/tools/faqs/faq.php?id=97&t=3. Accessed 11 May 2021.

U.S. Energy Information Administration. “How much electricity does a nuclear power plant generate?” eia, 28 December 2020, https://www.eia.gov/tools/faqs/faq.php?id=104&t=3. Accessed 11 May 2021.

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