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The Advantages of Nuclear Energy

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On March 11, 2011, an enormous tsunami hit the coast of Japan. This followed an earthquake of magnitude 9.0. The region was already greatly damaged when three Fukushima nuclear reactors were cut off from their cooling system. Over the next three days all the cores melted, releasing radioactive substances into cooling water.

The Fukushima disaster was devastating. The fact that a country as meticulous and developed as Japan could experience such a severe nuclear meltdown shocked the world. It forced us to revisit a now urgent question: should we continue to use nuclear energy for power generation?

Such a serious question must be treated carefully. I ask you to put aside all bias and look at the facts, and only the facts.

I believe that nuclear energy’s benefits greatly outweigh its risks, therefore it is an excellent choice for power generation that should not be discontinued.

Firstly, I will affirm that nuclear energy is, in fact, safe. There have only been three major accidents in its entire history: Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima. None of these incidents was caused by nuclear energy’s fundamental flaws, but rather mistakes made by inadequately trained personnel, peculiar design and poor safety culture caused by Cold War isolation.

Three Mile Island’s incident was the worst nuclear accident in the history of the United States. Even so, the nuclear waste produced from the incident was contained within the walls of the plant, thus avoiding the release of significant amounts of radiation.

Detailed studies, both governmental and independent, show that the average dose of radiation to the surrounding population was only 1 millirem. That is less than what a chest x-ray gives: 6 millirem. In the months that followed, experts monitored the area to check for radiation effects on the environment. None could be directly correlated to the Three Mile Island incident.

Chernobyl’s incident was caused by the peculiar design of its reactors as well as mistakes made by inadequately trained personnel. As a result, several people died.

I acknowledge that the deaths are a tragedy. However, I would like to point out that Chernobyl caused less deaths than mining does every year. Furthermore, the United Nations says that apart from increased thyroid cancers, "there is no evidence of a major public health impact attributable to radiation exposure 20 years after the accident."

What most people do not know is that the Fukushima nuclear plant was not constructed in a responsible manner. The plant was built in one of country’s regions most prone to earthquakes, and right on the coast, where, in the event of a tsunami, the reactors would feel its maximum effects. In addition to that, the four reactors were built very close to each other. Also, the Fukushima plant’s technology was outdated. It was sixty years old and not well maintained.

Even so, no workers have received radiation doses large enough to set off radiation sickness. There have not been any negative effects by radiation on the locals, nor any doses near harmful levels.

Nuclear plants are actually very safe. There have only been three accidents in its entire history. If we compare its record to coal’s, we’ll find that nuclear plants are much safer. For every one death caused by nuclear power generation, there are 4000 deaths from coal.

All forms of energy have drawbacks. If we had shied away from every possibly dangerous activity, we would not have harnessed fire.

Next, we desperately need nuclear energy to help fight climate change. At the moment, we are in a severe environmental crisis. We need to change our methods of energy production, and we need to do it now. Currently, 77% of Canada’s primary energy production comes from fossil fuels, which are not a sustainable resource. As we all know, they emit harmful greenhouse gases, that are a cause of global warming, which is already affecting both wildlife and humans. In addition, fossil fuels cause acid rain and expose humans to carcinogenic chemicals.

Coal is another source of energy that competes with nuclear energy, constituting 8.2% of Canada’s production of primary energy. Nuclear energy only represents 5.9%. Using coal for energy production should not be favoured over nuclear, since it has negative effects on the environment and on society. It disturbs local biodiversity when mined, due to noise, soil erosion and water pollution. From 1881 to 1969, 424 coal workers died in mines located at Springhill, Nova Scotia. In 1992, 26 workers were killed by a methane explosion near Plymouth, Nova Scotia. In addition to these deaths, coal workers are exposed to carcinogens. For these people, the risk of developing heart, lung and liver diseases increases. Also, when burned, coal produces sulphur dioxide, a major air pollutant.

Nuclear energy should definitely be favoured over coal and fossil fuels.

You might ask, why shouldn’t we turn to renewable energy when it has less effect on the environment than nuclear energy does?

The answer is this: it does not produce enough energy to respond to our energy needs.

According to the Canadian Nuclear Association, Canada is the fifth largest producer of electricity in the world. We generate about 4% of the total world production of primary energy.

It is not possible to meet these needs if we suddenly replace fossil fuels with renewable energy. As mentioned before, 77% of Canada’s energy production is from fossil fuels. Only 0.1 % is generated by wind, tidal and solar energies.

But can nuclear energy meet these needs?

Absolutely. Unlike up and coming renewables, there is already a “community” of constructed nuclear plants. What’s more, is that nuclear energy is renowned for its efficiency – the capacity of producing a lot of energy from very little fuel.

A single gram of uranium contains as much energy as four tons of coal. Therefore, a plant requires very little uranium to produce electricity.

The production cost of nuclear energy is very low: on average, less than 1.8 cents per kilowatt hour. This is cheaper than natural gas, which can cost between 3 and 6 cents per kilowatt hour. Renewable energies cost two to six times as much as nuclear energy. Only coal can rival it, but with evident environmental drawbacks.

If we compare nuclear energy to coal, we will find that when a coal power station consumes 3 million tons of fuel in a year, a nuclear power station consumes only 25 tons of uranium. 7 million tons of waste a year are generated by this coal power station, most of it in the form of gases. 1 ton of radioactive waste is produced, 3% of it high-level waste. The other 97% is recycled. As you can see, it is much more efficient to turn to nuclear energy.

In addition to being highly efficient, nuclear waste can be dealt with well.

Yes, it is radioactive. Yes, it is dangerous. However, we are aware of these dangers and of how to deal with them.

First of all, let me explain to you the process of nuclear waste disposal. Once a year, used reactor fuel is replaced. The waste is radioactive and very hot, so it is stored in “ponds”, concrete pools of water, outside the plant site. After several years, when its radioactivity has been reduced, the fuel is collected and stored in canisters, either to be used again or to be regarded as waste, and no longer used.

If the fuel is to be reused, it undergoes a series of procedures known as reprocessing. The uranium is separated from plutonium and high-level waste. As stated earlier, 97% of the fuel can be recycled.

We know how to take care of nuclear waste. It is carefully kept out of our reach, therefore poses absolutely no danger to us.

Nuclear energy is safe, environmentally friendly and efficient. It is a form of energy superior to many others. We cannot afford to discontinue it in today’s environmental situation. We need a form of energy that can help regulate greenhouse gas emissions. We need a form of energy that is efficient. Nuclear energy is the right choice.

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