that the following five countries – the United States, France, Russia, South Korea and China – share. But one common link is that they top the list of nuclear power generating countries¹.
Energy generation through nuclear power is a topic with some fairly emotive connotations, not least because of the tragic events associated with the use of the nuclear bomb in Japan during the Second World War. Since then, the use of nuclear energy has also been associated with tragic accidents in Chernobyl, Ukraine, Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania, U.S. and Fukushima, Japan².
In Chernobyl, the radiation released into the environment killed over 50 people, required mass evacuations of thousands of people and caused hundreds of cancer cases; the partial-core meltdown at Three Mile Island did not cause any injuries as very little radiation was released but the plant closed causing the operating company and its investors a lot of money; and more recently, following a black-out caused by a Tsunami, four neighbouring plants lost cooling and the decay heat melted the cores. In addition to the loss of property, evacuations and many deaths considered “disaster-related”, Greenpeace commissioned a report that argues that this nuclear accident will impact forests, rivers and estuaries for hundreds of years³.
But despite the tragic deaths and consequences as a result of accidents around nuclear energy generation, nuclear power is considered one of the few energy sources at our disposal that combines three very attractive features:
- steady stream of energy for a long time
- energy security if the nuclear plant is built in one’s country
- a drastically lower level of greenhouse emissions so good news for climate change.
The limiting factor
Of course, it is not all roses and fairy dust. Nuclear energy power plants can produce energy 24/7, but to create energy in the first place the plants need to create a nuclear reaction.
Essentially, nuclear power relies on the process that breaks the atomic bonds between protons and neutrons, surrounded by electrons. Atoms have what is called a nucleus – or core – which contains proton that have a positive electrical charge and electrons carry a negative electrical charge; neutrons do not have an electrical charge. The bonds can be broken through nuclear fission, and this energy can be used to produce electricity⁴.
To create this reaction, uranium is needed. Uranium is considered a nonrenewable energy source, even though it is a common metal found in rocks worldwide. Nuclear power plants use a certain kind of uranium, referred to as U-235, for fuel because its atoms are easily split apart. Although uranium is about 100 times more common than silver, U-235 is relatively rare⁴. At the moment, identified uranium resources amount to a total of 5.5 million metric tons, while it is estimated that an additional 10.5 million metric tons remain undiscovered. Given today’s consumption rate where nuclear energy makes about 11% of all energy sources world-wide, this means we have roughly a 230-year supply⁵,⁶.
Environmental concerns of nuclear power
Nuclear energy is therefore not only a non-renewable form of energy since uranium stocks will be depleted in the foreseeable future leaving us locked within a technology that can no longer be used but extraction of the raw materials required to kick-start the process result in a number of environmental concerns. The same goes for the waste that is generated during nuclear fission, the process by which uranium atom bonds are broken to make energy.
More specifically, to produce 25 tons or so of uranium fuel which is needed to keep the average reactor up and running for about a year entails the extraction of half a million tons of waste rock and over 100,000 tons of mill tailings. These can be toxic for hundreds of thousands of years. In addition, contamination of nearby water supplies located close to uranium mines and processing plants has been documented in Brazil, Colorado, Texas, Australia, Namibia and many other sites. If we are to generate further nuclear energy to supply even a fraction of the power stations that industry expects to be online worldwide in 2020 would mean generating 50 million tons of toxic radioactive residues every single year⁷.
In other words, while nuclear energy offers distinct benefits over other non-renewable energy sources such as fossil fuels, we would be remiss to forget that nuclear power is also a form of non-renewable energy which comes with several drawbacks in terms of extraction, use and disposal as well as the high risk associated with accidents.