Many proponents of clean energy have turned to nuclear energy as a viable source for renewable energy. But is this really the case?
The argument is fairly split down the middle and there are many advantages and disadvantages to nuclear power. Currently there are 440 nuclear power plants in existence that supply 16 percent of the world’s energy. France runs 78 percent of their power off of nuclear energy (Source: euronuclear.org). One of the many advantages of nuclear power is that the technology is already in place. Not only that, but a single power plant can provide a large amount of power (more than gas or oil can) and therefore less plants would have to be created. And of course nuclear power plants emit very low levels of CO2 and therefore do not contribute many greenhouse gases to the environment.
With the advancement of technology, nuclear power plants have become much more secure and events such as Chernobyl are unlikely to happen. One of the major issues that stood in the way of nuclear power was the toxic waste it left behind as well as the limited supply of uranium available on earth. With advances in technology, both problems are alleviated with a method of recycling.
Chien Wai, a professor at the University of Idaho, has come up with a way to recycle the nuclear waste to create usable uranium in a safe and environmentally friendly way. The method was inspired by decaffeinated coffee and utilizes a supercritical fluid, in this case carbon dioxide. Supercritical fluids are any fluids that can exhibit the properries of both liquid and gas at a specific temperature and pressure. When these fluids interact with substances, they move through them and dissolve compounds. After the pressure is returned to normal, the gas evaporates and leaves behind only extracted metals. The ash left behind by nuclear power plants contains ten percent usable uranium, amounting to about $5 million worth of uranium (Source: Science Daily).
Unfortunately there are still many side effects of nuclear power plants, the major one being the threat of a nuclear plant failure or meltdown. While security has greatly increased, no plant is 100% safe. And even if there was some way to guarantee 100% safety, the fact remains that nuclear power plants are quite easy targets for any kind of launched assault. Not only that, but the technical know-how for building a nuclear plant can be applied to a certain extent to create nuclear missiles. And even if it is somehow safe, nuclear plants take around 20-30 years to become completely operational, not to mention that they are also extremely costly. Although France does run off of nuclear, each plant cost them $6.5 billion and a French-designed plant in Finland has been plagued by delays, overruns and leaks (Source: Greenpeace USA).
Even with the problems and costs of building these plants, the problem of the waste remains. The uranium isotope usted for nuclear power plants eventually decays (although it does not completely since it has a half-life), and though Wai may be able to recycle usable uranium from the radioactive ashes, the fact remains that the uranium gathered will not have the same amount of power/energy as the original and will need to be enriched in order to produce the same amount of energy.
The debate of nuclear energy will continue until there is either some way to make nuclear energy safer, cheaper or find a way to safely dispose of the toxic waste created by nuclear energy. Until that time, the jury will remain split on the topic of nuclear energy.
Light and Matter