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OPINION: Nuclear Power

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Photo Courtesy of National Archives Catalog

Photo Courtesy of National Archives Catalog

Photo Courtesy of National Archives Catalog

John Milliken, VOX Video Editor

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Whether or not nuclear power is a good idea is a hotly debated topic in American politics. Recently, this controversy has been stirred up with new intensity due to several controversial pro-nuclear government decisions, including, along with Canada and Japan, launching the Nuclear Innovation Clean Energy Future (NICE Future) initiative partnership, an international organization dedicated to helping reduce environmental harm through innovative uses of new energy sources, including nuclear energy.

Nuclear power faces serious opposition both from the public and from lawmakers. Some of this can probably be attributed to people associating nuclear power with nuclear weapons. Of course, just because they use the same mechanism, it doesn’t follow that nuclear power and nuclear weapons are related issues. Explosives used on construction sites, for example, could also be used as weapons, but no one is advocating that they not be used at all because of this.

A more serious problem is the possibility of human deaths or environmental damage caused by an accident at a power plant or by radioactive waste. Neither of these possibilities, however, poses a greater danger than that already posed by other power sources. In fact, burning coal and oil can even produce radioactive waste!

Nuclear waste does not pose a serious hazard to the public or the environment. First of all, not all nuclear waste is equally dangerous. About 97% by volume of all nuclear waste is low or intermediate-level waste, with only 3% being high level nuclear waste. This relatively small quantity of high-level waste contains 95% of the total radioactivity of produced nuclear waste.

Since the first nuclear power plant was commissioned, the total amount of high level nuclear waste produced worldwide totals about 370,000 metric tons, of which 120,000 tons was reprocessed from already used nuclear fuel. In the UK, the oldest nuclear power producer, it is estimated that the total amount of all levels of radioactive waste from nuclear power production will be 4.9 million metric tons by the year 2125. By contrast, the total annual production of conventional waste in the UK is 200 million metric tons, of which 4.3 million tons are hazardous waste, including radioactive waste derived from burning coal and oil.

There are very strict protocols governing how nuclear waste is disposed of. Nuclear power suppliers are required to safely dispose of all of their waste products, and the cost of doing so is factored into the cost of the electricity produced.

In the case of carbon fuels, many waste products, such as smoke and ash, as well as CO2 and other gases, are released into the air and water without being carefully regulated. Nuclear power is a much cleaner source of energy than most other energy sources. While accidents have happened at nuclear power plants, they are very rare, the damage they have caused has not been substantial, and designers are always finding ways of making nuclear reactors safer. For example, one of the biggest and most publicized nuclear accidents in the United States was the meltdown at Three Mile Island in Middletown, Pennsylvania, in 1979; yet, no humans were killed by the accident.

In France, where most of the energy production has come from nuclear power for years, there has not been a problem with environmental damage or public health. Other means of energy production, such as coal, oil, and gas, also suffer from occasional accidents. Oil spills, mining accidents, and air pollution all harm the environment and claim human lives as well. In fact, a study by NASA in 2013 showed that, from 1972 – 2009, the number of deaths caused by nuclear accidents was smaller than the number that probably would have been caused had the energy derived from nuclear power been derived from other fuel sources instead. Thus, the net effect was less loss of human life.

Nuclear power is a safe, clean source of energy. While numerous problems, such as technical challenges and competition with natural gas, face the nuclear power industry, perhaps the biggest is opposition from both the public and lawmakers. This opposition is unfounded and harmful. Especially at a time when environmental concerns are widespread, more nuclear power would be a boon for the United States.

Any readers have thoughts on nuclear power? Please leave a comment below!

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John Milliken, Video Editor

Senior at Mother of Divine Grace.

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OPINION: Nuclear Power