Research seems to support the claim that we are faced with Global Warming. Everyone knows that one of the main contributors to greenhouse gasses, principally CO2 or carbon dioxide, is fossil fuels. Chief offenders include transportation (ships, trucks, cars, trains, aircraft) and power generation. As the chart below shows, about 50% of the United State's electricity production comes from coal (2003 numbers), about 20% comes from nuclear, the rest from a mix of renewable, oil, and gas - with the last two also contributing to greenhouse emissions. All in all, 70% of US power is generated by fossil fuels.
In the article, "Global boom in coal power – and emissions" The Christian Science Monitor states:
In the past five years, [the world] has been on a coal-fired binge, bringing new generators online at a rate of better than two per week. That has added some 1 billion tons of new carbon-dioxide emissions that humans pump into the atmosphere each year. Coal-fired power now accounts for nearly a third of human-generated global CO2 emissions.They go on to point out that China is not the only culprit, many other nations including the United States see coal-generated power as the cheapest option available.
So what does the future hold? An acceleration of the buildup, according to a Monitor analysis of power-industry data. Despite Kyoto limits on greenhouse gases, the analysis shows that nations will add enough coal-fired capacity in the next five years to create an extra 1.2 billion tons of CO2 per year.
An article in the Economist, "Nuclear dawn", makes the argument for nuclear power. With worldwide energy demands (and supply) expected to double in the decades to come, nuclear energy makes sense. The following chart shows the greenhouse gas output of each type of fuel used to generate electricity.
Nuclear wins out by a hefty margin. Over the decades nuclear energy has faced difficulties for numerous reasons.
None of these have to do with either its safety or risk record.
Nuclear power plants do cost billions of dollars to build. Worse, in many countries "delays due to protests or planning problems... have lengthened the construction period and enormously increased costs." This is not true of France who
After the oil crisis of 1973... decided to pursue the goal of fossil-fuel independence. With few energy resources of its own, pursuing nuclear power seemed like the best strategy. All the commercial nuclear plants operating in France today were based on technology devised by Westinghouse, which licensed its PWR design to France in the 1960s. Today the country has 59 nuclear reactors supplying 78% of its electricity.Once operating, however, these plants use a fraction of the fuel required by other forms of non-renewable energy. The fuel in a single reactor lasts about three years. Uranium is also still in relatively abundant supply with no shortages due on the horizon.
There have been a few accidents. In 2007 a small amount of radioactive material was released into the ocean by one of Japan's reactors due to damage caused by an earthquake. The New York Times reported that "317 gallons of [radioactive water] flowed into the Sea of Japan." Aside from Three-Mile Island and Chernobyl this is one of the worst accidents to ever occur, causing a temporary shutdown of the reactor until it is repaired. We are very emotional about nuclear energy. Perhaps this links back to its use as a weapon both designed and proven as a city-killer, an agent of destruction aimed at civilians like ourselves. Many of us have lived through the cold war where the threat of nuclear annihilation was ever-present. A more rational review of the impact of coal versus nuclear exposes a very different reality. The World Bank reports that,
the environmental cost of coal use [in China] is already beginning to take its toll, particularly through SO2 (Sulphure Dioxide) and NOx (Nitrogen Oxides) emissions which are the leading causes of acid rain. In 2002, about 34 percent (or 6.6 million tons) of China’s SO2 emissions were released from power plants. Acid rain falls on an estimated 30 percent of China’s land mass and can become a threat to agricultural output. China’s CO2 (Carbon Dioxide) emissions, second only to the United States, are also a threat to the global environment.We don't hear about acid rain any more. It's off our radar screens. We forget about the Exxon Valdez oil spill in which 10.8 million gallons of crude were spilled into the arctic ocean resulting in the death of "250,000–500,000 seabirds, 2,800–5,000 sea otters, approximately 12 river otters, 300 harbour seals, 250 bald eagles, and 22 orcas, as well as the destruction of billions of salmon and herring eggs." On its home page the International Tanker Owners Pollution Federation Limited states, "Our technical advisers have attended on-site at 550 spills in 90 countries." How much environmental and economic damage have these spills caused? This is just one organization among many that responds to oil spills - some of them. We also need to consider the environmental impact of strip mining, the cheapest way to extract coal from the earth. Intuitively the environmental cost of coal is far greater than that of uranium given the vastly greater volumes of the carbon fuel that must be extracted per kilowatt of energy produced.
As for nuclear power, the errors of the past need not be repeated.
One of these is the laissé faire attitude taken by politicians with regards to renewable energy. This has to be the long-term goal of any national energy strategy. Nuclear energy is a good stop-gap approach to meeting our short-term needs with minimal negative impact while we search for long-term solutions.
The self-centredness of the western world's approach to just about everything must also change. If global warming has taught us anything it's that the greenhouse gas emissions of developing countries have just as much impact on our environment as what we produce. We need to make sure that new renewal energy technologies are affordable and can and will be adopted by poorer countries. This should be the holy grail renewable energy research.
The other error we have committed is that of letting our vote be dictated by the fear, uncertainty and doubt sown by the media and dare I say the oil/coal industries. We citizens need to make more informed decisions and use our voting power to remove the roadblocks to wider adoption of nuclear power in our nations.