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With the rise of global warming effects and increasing calls for the world to adopt clean forms of energy, the idea of nuclear energy sounds like a perfect panacea. Consideration of a safer and more secure nuclear plant in future even heightens the hope of the world powered by nuclear energy. Unlike other forms of energy, nuclear power has limited negative environmental impact and is quite reliable. Although nuclear power stations are expensive to establish and need specialized skills to operate, the impact that other forms of energy have created makes nuclear power the only solution for future energy problems. Fossil fuels and other popular forms of energy that emit large amounts of CO2 would be untenable in the foreseeable future, given the negative impact that such forms of energy cause to the environment. The most permissible power that is yet to take root will be nuclear. Consequently, in the face of global warming and its resultant climatic challenges, nuclear power seems to be an unseen benefit in the energy sector given its potential for zero greenhouse gas emissions. But is it a worthy risk? Embracing nuclear power could be just as bad as it could be good.
Nuclear power is a form of energy obtained through nuclear reactions generating heat. The heat is then converted to electricity, commonly through steam turbines. The stages involved in this process include nuclear fusion, nuclear decay, and nuclear fission. All of these processes are low carbon in nature and thus allow mankind to obtain energy without having to damage the atmosphere with greenhouse gas emissions (Meany, 2008). As a source of energy, nuclear power is considerably clean and safe for the environment in terms of global warming. It must however be considered that the nuclear aspect of this energy source implies some connections with radioactivity. This means that there is always a certain level of risk in the event of exposure. Nuclear power was popularized in the 1950s when the USSR opened the first nuclear power plant that could generate about 5 megawatts of electricity. The UK followed this example in 1956, while the U.S. also joined the group in 1957 (McLeish, 2007). Slowly, nuclear power became a popular and rather cheap source of energy aimed at reducing energy costs significantly in the short term. At this point, the main motivation was the cost of energy rather than the effects of carbon emissions associated with burning fossil fuels. It can be appreciated, however, that at the moment, the ideals used to get nations to embrace the concept of nuclear power have not been successful. Many countries are still resistant to the idea of nuclear fission as a way of generating energy, which became a wide-spread opinion after the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan. Before this disaster, nuclear power provided over 10% of the electricity used, as compared to the 12% produced through hydroelectric processes (Murray & Holbert, 2014). This percentage however continues to dwindle owing to the shutdown of numerous nuclear reactors across the globe. The reality of the risks associated with nuclear power dawned with the Fukushima disaster. In fact, it caused a lot of governments to ask critical questions. The main contention in this case was whether it was worth the risk.
The energy sector has been heavily criticized for quite a long time due to its shareholder perspective where the companies are mainly interested in the financial gains thus leading them to disregard a number of other factors including environmental safety. The oil and gas industry was for example oblivious to its impact on the environment until environmental interest groups were formed to hold them accountable for the damages they were causing (Ferguson, 2012). Basically, if left to their devices, the energy sector would have the power and the will to destroy the planet provided the industry had money to do it. It is only recently that the concept of sustainability became a major concern in the oil and gas industry, as the companies realized that destroying the planet would compromise their ability to prospect and sell oil and gas. Similarly, it can be expected that the nuclear power companies are likely to focus more on their ability to generate electricity and replace fossil fuels without thinking of the possible harm they could cause to the environment. It is thus important to understand that while the energy sector should be responsible for their activities and the associated consequences, this sector cannot be trusted with the safety and sustainability of the planet. This is why stakeholders need to pay attention to the developments in the industry and understand the risks involved when a new and “clean” source of energy is proposed and popularized as nuclear power was in the late 20th century (Ferguson, 2012).
The world requires energy for a number of the activities of mankind from industrial and transport to social benefits (Ferguson, 2012). This means that the world practically runs on energy and any additional sources of this valuable commodity would be highly appreciated. Recent studies indicate that fossil fuels account for more than half of the total energy consumed on the planet. These studies also indicate that the greenhouse gas emissions from the combustion of fossil fuels are responsible for the increasing temperatures within the planet. Global warming is thus an actual threat and it is one of the reasons why nuclear power could be a good idea for the sustainability of the Earth.
According to World Nuclear Association (2015), “18% of global electricity should come from nuclear energy by 2050, the largest contribution from any low carbon option to keep the globe at 2 degrees low”. The energy used to create nuclear power is generated by nuclear fusion, nuclear decay, and nuclear fission. None of these processes involve the combustion of fossil fuels. This means that the whole concept is carbon free and thus safe for the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide is a dangerous greenhouse gas that accounts for most of the atmospheric layer that prevents the Earth from losing some of the heat energy that it absorbs from outer space. More than 60% of the world’s carbon emissions are associated with the oil and gas industry as well as other fossil fuel burning exercises (Murray & Holbert, 2014). This means that by introducing nuclear power as the dominant and reliable source of electricity, there is a chance to reduce the level of greenhouse gas emissions by more than a half. This may not guarantee the dissipation of the existing greenhouse gas layer but it will ensure that the situation does not worsen. Currently, there are no viable substitutes to fossil fuels on a large scale, resulting in the inability to cut down greenhouse gas emissions. Even with carbon trading and global agreements on reducing carbon emissions, the Earth as it is cannot fully eliminate greenhouse gas emissions unless nuclear power is embraced fully.
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Reducing greenhouse gas emissions is an impressive achievement because it will imply that the layer of greenhouse gases causing global warming will not be thickening further each year. This means that the current momentum for global warming and its associated effects will reduce drastically. While this may not be as good as stopping the problem altogether, it means that there is a slight hope for the future of the planet (Murray & Holbert, 2014). If the planet succeeds in limiting greenhouse gas emissions to less than a half of the current volume, the rate of global warming may be slashed by more than a half. This is important for the future of the planet and it is an achievement that may not be possible unless there is an alternative source of energy that does not involve the combustion of fossil fuels. Currently, nuclear power is the only viable option that could be mass produced at a relatively low cost.
Nuclear power is produced through nuclear reactions within a nuclear power plant and, in most cases, the energy is produced in high quantity. This means that unlike oil and gas that keep running out and incurring extra costs for exploration and recovery, nuclear power is rather reliable in its sourcing and can be produced sustainably, given that the right raw materials are used (McLeish, 2007). This means that if the nuclear power were to be fully embraced, the planet would have a reliable and thus a sustainable source of energy in the long term. Reliable energy is in this case advantageous because the planet cannot survive without energy, especially in terms of the economy and general survival. People use energy within many contexts including health care and transportation. With reliable energy, life would not only be easier but also more fulfilling for the inhabitants of the Earth.
One of the greatest hindrances in the energy sector at the moment is the cost of production. The prices in the oil and gas industry tend to affect the global economy significantly, making oil and gas a great indicator of the financial status of the world. Unfortunately, the cost of exploring and recovering oil is often a bit higher than it should be. This explains why there are parts of the planet that are yet to be connected to the grid in terms of their access to electricity. Nuclear power may be expensive to construct and maintain but it provides a lot of energy at a manageable cost. This means that once the initial investment of setting up a standard nuclear reactor is made, the maintenance can be manageable in terms of cost and more people should be able to access energy owing to the low cost. Affordability within the energy sector is likely to improve the lives of a number of people in the areas where energy is considered too costly and people have to survive on kerosene and firewood as cheaper alternatives to electricity and gas. This implies that with nuclear power, there will be a further reduction in the burning of fossil fuels, since more people can access clean energy owing to the affordability of nuclear power in a relative context.
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The greatest challenge with nuclear power is the risk involved in nuclear reactors. The processes of creating the heat energy require some radioactivity as well. This means that the risks involved are in some cases fatal, if not highly deforming. Exposure to radioactivity has a lot of known and unknown consequences and the Fukushima accident in Japan is a reminder of this issue.
Construction of a nuclear reactant requires highly professional skills and caution, which explains why it is such an expensive endeavor. Safety regulations require a set of standard structures and procedures aimed at preventing accidents and explosions within these dangerous power plants. The challenge however is that regardless of how carefully the building is designed, there is always the probability of an incident. The consequences of a nuclear power incident, such as the Fukushima incident, are simply unbearable. Nuclear power accidents may be rare and less fatal statistically as compared to the fatalities in the oil and gas industry. Nevertheless, they are more horrific in terms of spreading panic and lasting effects of radiation in the environment (Sorensen, 2011). The direct fatalities associated with the exposure in Fukushima accounted for 610 individuals in terms of workers exposed and residents in the area who had to be evacuated. Generally, more than 10,000 lives were lost or severely affected in the area, especially by cancer (Murray & Holbert, 2014).
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When it comes to the fatalities in the oil and gas industries, it can be noted that the lives are often lost in explosions at the site of the oil well or in some cases the oil spills that affect the people living in the neighboring areas. Oil spills not only destroy the environment and aquatic life but also the health and financial stability of the local population. Contaminated water and dead or sick fish pose great challenges, too. The major difference with nuclear power accidents is that the effects of radiation exposure last longer and are far more expensive. In the Fukushima Daiichi accident, the mortality and morbidity rates related to cancer in the region are severely high. Within the past few years, the area has lost over 10,000 people and the problem continues to persist as more people are diagnosed with cancer (McLeish, 2007). This simply means that radiation exposures do not just affect the workers in the power plant: the consequences spread far beyond the plant and they persist for years. The economic cost of treating over 10,000 cancer patients, along with the emotional burden of losing most of these patients, is simply unjustifiable (Murray & Holbert, 2014). In such a situation, it can be disregarded that the accidents are not commonplace. The fact that it is a possibility means that the nuclear reactor should not even be considered as an option.
A number of countries have built their economies around the oil and gas industry. This means that while the planet needs a source of clean energy that does not contribute significantly to environmental degradation, there is also a need to consider the sustainability of the planet and its people in the absence of the oil and gas industry. Such countries as Qatar may not have anything more than oil to offer for their economic stability (Ferguson, 2012). The Middle East is particularly dependent on the oil and gas industry, as well as West Africa and other parts of the world. A complete shift in the energy sector towards nuclear power will destabilize these economies and even destroy the financial status of the countries in question. This could be translated to the poor global economy, as the oil and gas industry is currently one of the strongest determinants of the status of the economy in the whole world.
The possibility of having a source of energy that does not involve burning fossil fuels is rather attractive and impressive, but nuclear power poses too many significant risks. The world may be saved from the effects of global warming owing to the elimination of carbon emissions from the energy sector, but the number of lives that could be lost in the event of a nuclear reactor accident, such as the one that happened in Fukushima is simply unbearable. In addition, restructuring the global economy to shift from the oil and gas industry may cost a lot of nations their major source of revenue thus leaving them poor and unable to sustain their government expenditure. This would translate to a number of poor nations in the world where national revenue is deeply connected to the living standards of the people of the country. Apart from taking people’s lives, nuclear power also threatens the economy of the world and the quality of life. It thus follows that while there are many possible benefits of embracing nuclear power, there are just as many unbearable and severe risks involved.