Nuclear?

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Graphism found on “Documenting queerkind” blog: https://bearron.com/2011/03/

It might seem odd for an environmental organisation to include nuclear energy in its discussions about building a sustainable future. However, this is an important issue to address, as nuclear has been providing the world with electricity since the 1950’s, approximately 390 nuclear reactors still operate, and 65 more are under construction.

Several studies actually present nuclear energy as a good solution for supplying a great amount of people with clean energy. If carbon emissions are the most important criterion in the definition of clean energy, this could be considered true as nuclear energy does not produce greenhouse gas emissions in itself.

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Picture of Tchernobyl nuclear power plant taken from “L’orée des rêves” forum: http://www.loree-des-reves.com/modules/newbb/viewtopic.php?topic_id=3511&forum=25

So, what is wrong with nuclear? Nuclear reactors, splitting uranium atoms to generate huge amounts of energy, need a critical mass of fuel in order to operate. This process, known as fission, generates dangerous radioactive waste containing uranium and plutonium. The safe disposal of this waste is a huge problem for the environment and for human health. Last but not least, this waste can be used to create atomic weapons.

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Picture of gas masks in Chernobyl, taken from “L’orée des rêves” forum: http://www.loree-des-reves.com/modules/newbb/viewtopic.php?topic_id=3511&forum=25

It is those safety problems that most people have been concerned about especially since nuclear has been used as a massive deadly weapon and since it has already shown us the disastrous impact of radiation on living beings. The three biggest nuclear accidents, Three Mile Island (US, 1979),

Chernobyl (Ukraine, 1986) and Fukushima (Japan, 2011), have not helped to ease those concerns.

 

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Nuclear waste disposal in South Africa, picture taken from this blog: http://deannormanct18517.blogspot.ie/2012/04/nuclear-power-and-its-affects-on-south.html

There are three categories of nuclear waste depending on their level of radioactivity: Low, Intermediate and High.  97% of radioactive waste from a nuclear power plant is between Low and Intermediate. The most dangerous (high level) is only 3% of the waste. However it contains 95% of the radioactivity and it is the greatest cause of concern.

Low and Intermediate wastes were disposed of at sea until 1993. Today it is stored in specialised warehouses or buried in specific facilities. That is enough to contain the radioactivity, which decays after 300 years. High level waste is more difficult to manage. Its radioactivity can last for more than 20,000 years. First it must be cooled down in big pools for several years, where water and concrete walls contain the radioactivity. After that, the waste is stored in special containers and buried deep underground.

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Radioactive waste management, picture taken from this website: http://world-nuclear.org/info/nuclear-fuel-cycle/nuclear-wastes/radioactive-waste-management

It is possible to recover part of the fuel that has already been used, through a chemical operation call “reprocessing“, which separates uranium and plutonium from other waste material to reuse it. However, this process is known as potentially dangerous for human health.

Another raised by nuclear energy exploitation is its high cost. For example, the nearest project to Ireland, Hinkley Point C  in the UK, will receive government funding of 17.6 billion pounds (almost 23 billion euros) and its construction will take at least a decade.

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Diagram available on this website: https://www.odicis.org/uranium/uranium-nuclear-fuel

With all those difficulties, why are people even considering nuclear energy for building a sustainable future? Well, some solutions are available to make it more attractive. For example, making the nuclear reactors smaller so they can be cheaper and safer, and using thorium instead of uranium to fuel them. Splitting thorium atoms produces far less waste, and its chemical properties avoids generating plutonium. Besides, there is more thorium on Earth than uranium; the supply is bigger.

Nuclear industry can be improved. It will never be totally safe for anyone, not mentioning the environment, but it could be made safer and may represent a good solution for supplying the world with low-carbon energy while waiting for a more ecological-friendly solution available worldwide.

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Dukovany nuclear power plant, picture taken from this website: http://oenergetice.cz/jaderne-elektrarny/jaderna-elektrarna-dukovany/

 

 

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