Nuclear energy's powerful questions

Despite the concerns, nuclear power could be a great benefit to developing nations

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If anyone remembers Chernobyl, they'd recall that the 22-year-old Soviet nuclear reactor suffered an incredible disaster. To this day, we're still haunted by the consequences that arose from the debris of Chernobyl. Over 600,000 people were affected by the nuclear fallout and the resulting fear has essentially halted the progression of nuclear power in the world. However, with the extreme cost of oil, nations around the world have been searching for alternative sources of energy that don't rely on the depleting natural resource.

But there's a fervour circulating about nuclear power. Detractors think that it's a terrible source of energy and it should be avoided at all costs. This isn't necessarily true because there are amazing benefits to using nuclear energy. At the forefront of this argument is the fact that nuclear power plants provide an almost limitless amount of energy. Twenty two Canadian nuclear power plants generate 12.4 per cent of Canada's power. The fuel for nuclear power plants is also cheap to obtain and it provides clean and efficient energy without the expense of harming our environment. According to the paper "Life-Cycle Assessment of Electricity Generation Systems and Applications for Climate Change Policy Analysis," by Paul J. Meier from the University of Wisconsin, nuclear power plants only pump out about 15 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions per gigawatt-hour they produce. This is obviously advantageous compared to coal's 1,041 tonnes of carbon dioxide and natural gas's 622 tonnes. Nuclear power is also far safer than coal power. Per terawatt of power produced, nuclear power has only killed eight people versus coal's 342 and hydro electric's 885.

Nuclear activists, however, are quick to point out that harvesting uranium is among the most oil-intensive mining operations. Huge operations are undertaken while searching and extracting the fuel from the earth. Once the uranium has completed its life cycle (which lasts for about six years in the reactor) it's transported to some safe location where it's going to stay for a very long period of time. Uranium has an incredibly long half-life which means that it's still dangerously radioactive to humans for a great deal of time. Obviously this leads to environmental concerns as well as safety issues.

When nations are entertaining the idea of building nuclear power plants, there is a lot to consider first. They have to weigh the benefits and consequences of having a nuclear power plant, first of all. Secondly, they'd have to evaluate the cost of building and maintaining one, which is not cheap. Case in point, the last nuclear power plant built in Ontario went billions of dollars over budget. Yet, think of all of the possibilities that a developing nation may have if it invested in nuclear power. If the project was backed by a developed nation, power would come cheap, clean, efficient and it would solve a huge portion of the power problems that are plaguing most developing nations.

Unfortunately, there is no concrete answer as to whether or not a nation should develop nuclear power as a major energy source. What the decision really comes down to is whether or not the nation is willing to invest the billions of dollars into the research, mining and storage-- all necessary for a functional nuclear power plant. Any developing nation may have enough justifiable causes to develop a nuclear power plant. These countries are the ones most in need of fast and clean energy. In Canada's case though, there's no reason to develop nuclear power. Around 60 per cent of our electricity is powered by our vast hydroelectric dams.




Thanks for the thoughtful article! Nuclear's advantages are greatly enhanced if nuclear spent fuel is reprocessed and reused. If new nuclear reactor technologies are used, such as the integral fast reactor, uranium ultimately won't need to be mined at all. The new reactors can be fueled efficiently with the spent fuel from the old reactors which will give us energy for centuries with virtually no CO2 released and fission product "waste" radioactive for only a few centuries.