This was the last term paper I ever wrote in high school. The coolest thing about it was its title,
An explosion rocked the Ukraine in April of 1986. An experiment gone awry caused the Unit 4 reactor of the Chernobyl nuclear fission plant to explode, spreading radioactive contamination throughout Europe. It is predicted that more than 17,000 people will die of cancer over fifty years. It is this type of incident that comes to mind when considering nuclear power. Though discredited by Chernobyl and other accidents such as that of Three Mile Island in 1979, energy derived from nuclear fission may still be an alternative for today's electricity, if its efficiency, environmental impact, and relative safety are examined.
Safer Than Peanut Butter
At present, nuclear power only provides about 22 percent of the nation's electricity. Coal power represents another 58 percent, and the remaining 20 percent divided between oil, gas, hydro and renewables such as wind and geothermal. Some are more usable than others. Until a better storage method is found, solar power is effective only in daylight. Hydroelectric plants can only be built in certain areas. Wind power is generated by vast arrays of wind turbines, but efficiently only in high wind speeds. Only nuclear and fossil fuel power are well suited for full time use, without having any location limitations such as hydro does. Fossil fuel plants have significantly higher fuel costs than nuclear. Logically, it is more cost effective to use the fossil fuel plants during the day, when there is the greatest demand for electricity, and to shut them down at night, than it is to be running them day and night. Unfortunately, this is not possible without a replacement for the times of lower demand. However, since they use less expensive uranium, nuclear plants are much more cost effective to use 24 hours a day (Cohen 296). Additionally, a nuclear power plant's fuels costs are only a third of the total cost, less than half that of coal and oil (Wolfe 54). Therefore, nuclear power is a cost-effective and efficient substitute for conventional power generation.
Burning fossil fuels such as coal, oil, and natural gas produces carbon dioxide, contributing to global warming. Prior to the industrial age, the carbon dioxide concentration of the atmosphere was 280 parts per million (ppm). By 1958, it had increased to 315 ppm, and 350 in 1986. This is known as the greenhouse effect, and some scientists predict that by 2030 the CO2 concentration may double, which would raise the average temperature by 2.2?F worldwide (Cohen 22). This, combined with other factors such as increased methane production and melting ice, could actually raise the temperature by as much as 15?F, with catastrophic consequences. The increase could raise sea level enough to endanger coastal cities, home to a significant portion of the population. Fluctuating precipitation patterns might change formerly productive land into deserts. "Social and political upheaval would surely accompany such drastic environmental changes" (Wolfson 251). Whereas conventional fossil-fueled power plants emit undesirable materials such as these greenhouse gases into the environment, no waste is directly emitted to the environment from a nuclear plant. In fact, substituting nuclear power plants for fossil-fuel plants has reduced present CO2 emissions by over 130 million metric tons of carbon every year, ten percent of the total U.S. CO2 production (Wolfe 56). Since the oil embargo of 1973, nuclear energy has reduced the world's CO2 emissions by more than two billion metric tons ("Now" 50). It has also taken the place of 145,000,000 tons of coal; 265,000,000 barrels of oil; and 1.7 trillion cubic feet of natural gas ("Now" 49). "Of course, radioactive waste can represent a serious hazard if it is not properly maintained, but its small volume allows very high expenditures and great care per unit volume" (Wolfe 55). All of the country's high-level nuclear waste from the more than thirty years of plant operation would be only nine feet deep on a football field. These wastes have been carefully maintained at the plants without harm to the public or the biosphere (Wolfe 55). Continued containment presents no problem, even as the industry seeks permanent disposal facilities. It is evident that nuclear power is not a threat to the environment.
The main danger of nuclear power is radiation. Radiation is measured in millirems, abbreviated mrem. The average radiation exposure to the public due to a 1985 radiation leak in the nuclear waste burial ground near Moorhead, Kentucky, was under 0.1 mrem. In addition, a leak of radioactivity from the nuclear power plant near Rochester, New York in 1982 caused a maximum exposure of less than 0.3 mrem. In fact, the radiation exposure in the great majority of cases is less than 1 mrem (Cohen 52). For example, of the 218 nuclear incidents in the United States in 1988, none leaked more that 0.5 mrem to the surrounding areas (Wolfson 188). Even in the highly publicized accident in 1979 at Three Mile Island, Pennsylvania, the average exposure in the surrounding area was only 1.2 mrem (Cohen 52). Radiation spills and accidents due to the nuclear power industry expose the public to an average of less than 1 millirem of radiation per accident. The constant bombardment of cosmic rays exposes the average person to 30 mrem per year. He is also hit by 20 mrem/year from radioactive materials in the ground such as uranium, potassium, and thorium. The brick, stone, and plaster in the walls of buildings around him expose him to 10 mrem/year. Radioactivity in his own body adds an additional 25 mrem/year (Cohen 52). These combined give an average dose of 85 mrem per year from natural sources, which is about 1/4 mrem every day. Therefore a person is exposed to the same amount of radiation from accidents due to the nuclear power industry as he does from his environment every four days. Individuals living in the immediate neighborhood of a nuclear power plant can expect to receive 1 mrem every year, not even 1 percent of background radiation (Wolfson 184). This 1 millirem is approximately the dose a passenger receives from cosmic rays on an airline flight to Chicago from New York (Wolfson 184). Clearly, the radiation from the operation of a nuclear power plant is no less safe than everyday activities. The safeness of any action or event can also be expressed as a risk. One way to express risk is the Loss of Life Expectancy (LLE). According to Bernard Cohen, a professor of physics and radiation health at the University of Pittsburgh, the LLE, "is the average amount by which one's life is shortened by a risk" (118). The LLE of a risk is the probability that it will cause death multiplied by the consequences in terms of lost life expectancy if it does. This is not how much sooner a person may die, but as Cohen explains: As an example, statistics indicate that an average 40 year old person will live another 37.3 years, so if that person takes a risk that has a 1 percent chance of being immediately fatal, it causes an LLE of 0.373 years (0.01 ? 37.3). It should be clear that this doesn't mean he will die 0.373 years sooner as a result of taking this risk. But if 1,000 people his age took this risk, 10 might die immediately, having their lives shortened by 373 years, while the other 990 would not have their lives shortened at all. Hence the average lost lifetime for the 1,000 people would be 0.373 years. This is the LLE of that risk. (118)
The LLE of living in the immediate neighborhood of a nuclear power plant is 0.4 days. This is the equivalent to a smoker having one extra cigarette every 15 years, or raising the speed limit from 55 mph to 55.006 mph (Rhodes 98). In addition, a study by the Union of Concerned Scientists estimated the LLE of a full national nuclear power program of 1.5 days, hardly more than the LLE for eating one tablespoon of peanut butter every day for a year of 1.1 days. This is also the equivalent of an overweight person gaining 0.45 ounces (Rhodes 98). Nuclear power is not nearly as dangerous a risk as taking birth control pills, marrying a smoker, being fifteen pounds overweight, or living in poverty, with LLEs of 5, 50, 450, and 3500 days, respectively (Cohen 128). Clearly, nuclear power does not represent a comparatively significant risk. A recent study by the American Lung Association and the American Thoracic Society shows that "tens of thousands of people a year are dying as a result of air pollution that is with our [the EPA's] current standards" ("Study" 3). The study showed that adults living in places with high levels of fine-particle pollution-due in part to fossil-fired power plants and in no way by nuclear power plants-had a 26% higher risk of death than those living in areas with lower particle pollution ("Study" 3). In addition, a 1000 Megawatt coal burning plant will cause 35.5 deaths per year: 30 to the general public from a respiratory disease due to air pollution; 1.5 from coal mining accidents; and 4 to coal miners from "black lung" disease. However, the operation of a 1000-MW nuclear plant will cause only 0.8 deaths in a year: 0.5 to the general public from radiation-induced cancer caused by normal emissions, nuclear waste, and reactor accidents; 0.2 from uranium mining accidents, and 0.1 to uranium miners from radon-induced lung cancer (Wolfson 253). Thus coal power, the main source of electricity in the United States, is 44 times as deadly as nuclear power. Conversely, nuclear power is safer than coal power. In conclusion, nuclear power is safe enough to be used. Clearly, nuclear-generated power is still a viable energy source. It is an practical, comparably safe source of energy, and harmless to the environment. In the wake of Chernobyl and Three Mile Island, the world is still ready for nuclear power.
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