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Nuclear Power: Good or Evil?

With the recent radioactive catastrophe at the Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan the merit of building nuclear reactors to meet our rising energy demands is again in question. Prior to Fukushima the world had gone on a nuclear spending spree and there are now over 440 nuclear plants dotting the planet with a further 65 plants under construction. The world currently gets around 13% of its electricity from nuclear sources.

It takes a lot of money to build a nuclear plant but the cost of nuclear fuel is relatively cheap – that is if you don’t allow for the external environmental costs of extracting the uranium and disposing of the nuclear waste. Because of the huge amounts of capital required to build payback can take up to 10 years.

The Union of Concerned Scientists have stated that "reactor owners have never been economically responsible for the full costs and risks of their operations. Instead, the public faces the prospect of severe losses in the event of any number of potential adverse scenarios, while private investors reap the rewards if nuclear plants are economically successful. For all practical purposes, nuclear power’s economic gains are privatized, while its risks are socialized"

Nuclear power plants create a long list of headaches from a security perspective. They provide a large, deadly target for an enemy to strike – what if someone flew a fuel laden airplane into the side of a nuclear reactor? Given the amount of GDP that is spent on defence in most countries, building nuclear hardly seems a wise decision from that angle.

Health and safety is a major issue with nuclear reactors – when things go wrong it can have a devastating result, as we have seen in Chernobyl back in the 80s and more recently at Fukushima. The health effects of radiation from nuclear accidents are heavily debated with some claiming a massive increase in cancers and genetic mutations while other studies show less serious side effects.

On the positive side, nuclear power does not rely on fossil fuels to generate the electricity so does not contribute to manmade climate change by way of carbon emissions. It produces very little in the way of air pollution compared to coal burning power plants. Some (such as prominent UK environmental journalist George Monbiot) argue that if we're to meet our rising energy needs without destroying the planet via climate change, we have not option but to accept nuclear.

From a New Zealand perspective nuclear energy does not seem to make a lot of sense. Because of the huge cost of building the plants and the long payback time we’re better off focusing on energy efficiency and renewable generation sources such as wind, solar and hydro. Our nuclear free, clean green image is worth a lot in terms of tourism and exports from our food industry.

And would you really want a nuclear power plant in your neighbourhood, no matter how safe you were told it would be?

Cancer from Radiation?
From Wikipedia:
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has a factsheet that outlines 6 different studies. In 1990 the United States Congress requested the National Cancer Institute to conduct a study of cancer mortality rates around nuclear plants and other facilities covering 1950 to 1984 focusing on the change after operation started of the respective facilities. They concluded in no link. In 2000 the University of Pittsburgh found no link to heightened cancer deaths in people living within 5 miles of plant at the time of the Three Mile Island accident. The same year, the Illinois Public Health Department found no statistical abnormality of childhood cancers in counties with nuclear plants. In 2001 the Connecticut Academy of Sciences and Engineering confirmed that radiation emissions were negligibly low at the Connecticut Yankee Nuclear Power Plant. Also that year, the American Cancer Society investigated cancer clusters around nuclear plants and concluded no link to radiation noting that cancer clusters occur regularly due to unrelated reasons. Again in 2001, the Florida Bureau of Environmental Epidemiology reviewed claims of increased cancer rates in counties with nuclear plants, however, using the same data as the claimants, they observed no abnormalities.

To put this into context though, it is not easy to trace low level radiation exposure to any resulting cancers because the time between exposure and effect can be 25 years or more. The effect on mutations can take generations to study. Nuclear energy has only a brief history so in many ways it is too early to judge the long term effects.

Showing 1 Comment

Posted by on 03/11/2015 03:02 PM

re: nuclear power
All these years later and Chernobyl is still costing money and resources...

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