Thanks to the burning of fossil fuels, global climate change is now a term everyone knows. But do we talk about limiting population growth and the particular aspects of consumerism that have brought about this dangerous alteration of our atmosphere?
After all, as long as the human population keeps increasing, there will be a corresponding increase in demand for energy just for basic needs, such as heating homes and cooking—never mind the energy gluttony of our modern era of computers, cell phones, automatic doors that open and close constantly, etc.
Yet as power companies attempt to provide the energy that our modern lifestyles are commanding, they are lambasted for their efforts. In Virginia, a lot of contentiousness exists about bringing fuel through the state via three huge natural-gas pipelines as well as the movement of electricity through gargantuan transmission towers.
That’s not surprising. What person who appreciates the natural beauty of a rural area wants such unnatural-looking features running through it? However, every American whose house is larger than absolutely necessary, or whose computer runs 24/7 for no good reason, bears some responsibility for these situations.
Many people insist that we don’t need coal or fracked hydrocarbons (environmentally destructive sources of energy) to supply our energy demands. They suggest we just need to develop “green” energy, such as can be obtained from sunshine, wind, and water.
But these so-called green energy sources are not synonymous with “harmless to the environment” as many people seem to think. Although “green” power sources may emit fewer or no carbon emissions as compared to coal, their use—when employed on a large scale—results in a variety of wildlife losses, both directly by infrastructure and indirectly by habitat alteration or destruction.
Dams built across rivers to create hydropower stop migratory (and edible) fish from being able to continue as far as they need to go in order to abundantly reproduce. And the concept of gathering energy from wave action presents such problems as alteration of habitat for benthic organisms (creatures that live at the lowest surface of a body of water, including on the sediment surface and in some sub-surface layers) and animal entanglement due to underwater moving parts.
Huge wind turbines kill migratory birds and bats that hit the spinning blades. Placing the bases of these structures within the ocean creates noise that can negatively impact sea life, especially cetaceans (whales and dolphins) that must communicate with one another over long distances.
The deployment of acres and acres of solar-panel arrays destroy habitat for the variety of wildlife they displace, and in some instances, the solar array itself has caused the deaths of particular species of birds, many of which are already recognized as endangered.
That said, solar panels on top of a roof (which are very common) and small wind turbines in a home landscape that no longer supports wildlife anyway are both great ways to obtain energy for the homeowner’s needs. However, large-scale solar- and wind-energy projects are too destructive of the environment. If people are going to continue to demand enormous amounts of energy instead of using energy more frugally—as I believe they should—the “greenest” alternative to coal is nuclear power.
Yes, people tend to be terrified of this radioactive fuel source, and admittedly with good reason. Radioactivity can be exceedingly dangerous should we be exposed to too much of it by a radioactive release from one of these power plants. And, of course, there’s the problem of leftover radioactive waste that needs to be properly disposed of. But are nuclear power plants “prohibitively dangerous,” as I’ve seen written?
There have never been deaths in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, or Europe due to nuclear power. Indeed, it has been in use now for over five decades and has a very good safety record.
The sum total of accidents in over 16,000 cumulative reactor-years of commercial nuclear power operation in 33 countries is three: Three Mile Island (United States, 1979), Chernobyl (Ukraine, 1986), and Fukushima (Japan, 2011).
Three Mile Island was contained without anyone being harmed, and there were no adverse environmental consequences.
Chernobyl involved an intense fire in a reactor designed without provision for containment of radioactive material should an accident occur. This design flaw is not allowed in Western countries. This incident killed 31 people and the ensuing environmental and health consequences have increased that total to at least 56.
Fukushima was designed to withstand an earthquake, which it did just fine. The operating units shut down and backup diesel generators started automatically to keep the nuclear safety systems powered. The problem was the huge tsunami that knocked out the backup power systems, allowing the reactors to overheat and release some radioactivity. Lessons have been learned; in the United States, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission now requires that portable electric generators and water-pumping equipment be stored onsite in a building away from the units so it’s available if needed to keep them safe.
Some folks worry that a nuclear power reactor might explode like a nuclear bomb. However, the fuel is not enriched anywhere near enough for that to happen.
Can spent fuel rods be enriched and then employed in bomb-making? Yes, but that’s why operating staff are monitored carefully, especially if they handle fuel. And new methods of mining uranium and improved technologies for building reactors that run on less-enriched uranium fuel should help make nuclear power even safer.
Although nuclear power stations emit about 17 tons of carbon dioxide per megawatt when producing power (compared to coal at a whopping 1000 tons), that’s not much more than wind and geothermal power, which emit the lowest amounts.
In terms of electricity production, the main advantage of nuclear power is that it delivers energy almost constantly. This makes it well-suited for providing the always-on “baseload” power supply we depend upon for reliability.
The main disadvantage in terms of electricity production is the problem of nuclear waste. According to the Nuclear Energy Institute, all of the used nuclear fuel produced over the past 50 years, if stacked end to end, would cover a single football field to a depth of about 21 feet.
The plan is to eventually store nuclear waste in underground repositories, but for now it is stored onsite at nuclear power plants in steel-lined, concrete water-filled vaults or in massive steel or steel-lined concrete dry containers. Although some folks worry about the possibility of equipment failures and personnel errors, there has yet to be a major incident.
Energy conservation should be practiced much more than it is, but the reality is that people are highly unlikely to change their ways. This fact was demonstrated by the need to legislate the use of more energy-efficient bulbs when people could have simply shut their lights off. That said, nuclear is far “greener” than most other sources in terms of maintaining the very existence of our natural world.