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Should the United States Be In A Nuclear Relationship?

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For hundreds of years the entire world and especially the United States has been using coal to meet their energy needs. However, in recent years the availability of the non-renewable resources such as coal has become a major issue in the United States. Not only is coal being used at an alarming rate, but the environment has also become a factor in deciding the future of energy production. Coal has been linked to acid rain and has one of the largest toxic air releases in the energy industry. Though nuclear energy has been around for a while, in recent years it has been brought to the table as a replacement for coal based energy. But is nuclear energy really better then coal? Though it has less environmental harmful side affects in use, it has the potential to destroy states and countries if someone makes a mistake or there is a natural disaster, such as Japan in 2011. So the question is, should the United States be in a nuclear relationship?

Ever since uranium was first found in 1789 by German chemist Martin Klaproth, people have been trying to figure out this complex atom. Though it took hundreds of years, scientists were finally able to harness the energy to produce electricity. During the 1950’s and ‘60s nuclear power plants began sprouting up everywhere across the globe. It was thought to be a much safer and cleaner alternative than the current practice of coal and still is. When heating uranium to produce electricity, you have to overheat it to produce the necessary “ingredients”, which makes the situation prone to a nuclear meltdown. This danger was first made aware to the public on March 28, 1979, when the Three Mile Island nuclear reactor in Pennsylvania overheated as the result of a faulty coolant valve (History of Nuclear Energy). Though no one was hurt, the incident drew attention to the danger that nuclear energy brought.

Even after this incident President Richard Nixon felt that the United States needed to sustain itself and become energy independent. A major push for his campaign was the buildup of nuclear power plants. In 1977 the U.S. already had 33 nuclear power plants, and 70 more were under construction. However, in the late 1970s President Jimmy Carter vowed to rid the world of nuclear weapons and the use of nuclear energy. He thought that if the United States were to give up its nuclear supply, other countries would follow suit. This was an unrealistic goal, but it is clear he did have good intentions. Currently there are 65 commercially operating nuclear power plants in the US with around 104 nuclear reactors in 31 states. These plants generate around 20% of the United States electricity (Nuclear Power in the USA).

The presidents who followed Jimmy Carter did not fight as strong, but did create laws and acts such as the Nuclear Waste Policy Act (NWPA) that was signed by Ronald Regan. This act stated that the NWPA, “supports the use of deep geologic repositories for the safe storage and/or disposal of radioactive waste. The act establishes procedures to evaluate and select sites for geologic repositories and for the interaction of state and federal governments. It also provides a timetable of key milestones the federal agencies must meet in carrying out the program” (Nuclear Rundown). I believe this act was crucial in making sure nuclear energy companies maintained safety standards that keep not only their employees safe, but also the surrounding areas safe as well.

To determine if nuclear energy should be used more, we should understand how it works, and the affect it has on the environment. To actually make nuclear energy, the element uranium has to be used. The element itself according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary is, “a silvery heavy radioactive polyvalent metallic element that is found especially in uraninite and exists naturally as a mixture of mostly nonfissionable isotopes”. To make nuclear energy, the uranium atoms need to be split. Professors at the University of Melborne wanted to present information on nuclear energy to educate the world. They say that, “The uranium used as fuel in a nuclear plant is formed into ceramic pellets about the size of the tip of your little finger. The uranium atoms in these pellets are bombarded by atomic particles, they split or fission to release particles of their own. These particles, called neutrons, strike other uranium atoms, splitting them. When the atoms split, they also release heat. This heat is known as nuclear energy” (Nuclear). The nuclear power plant then uses the kinetic energy from these collisions to heat water for a steam turbine that produces electricity. Though the process seems complicated, the nuclear energy companies have hired many employees to run each step of the process. This not only makes the process more efficient at working, but also adds new jobs for the surrounding area.

So to gather the uranium to make the energy, companies have to harvest the uranium ore. There are four different ways to do this: open pit, underground, in-situ leaching and heap leaching. In open pit mining for uranium, machines drill and blast to expose the ore of the uranium. The uranium is harvested by drilling and excavating it and placing it in loaders and dump trucks and taking it to the nuclear energy facilities’. When the uranium is to deep in the ground to do an open pit mine, they use underground tunnels and shafts to remove the uranium ore in an underground mine. The thought that underground mining would be safer does not apply according to Southern Environment Law Center. They have been protecting the South-East United States for the past 25 years. They are made up of attorneys and non-profit organizations, who have been working to pass laws to protect the environment. They say that, “The potential health impacts of exposure to uranium and mining chemicals are well-documented in global studies of people working in and living near mines, and include lung cancer, bone cancer, leukemia, birth defects, weakened immune systems, hormone disruption, and damage to DNA, the kidney and liver” (Uranium Mining). The risk of catching these illnesses makes many feel like harvesting uranium and producing nuclear energy should just be thrown out the window. However most of these side affects begin to show up after decades of working in the mine and the projection is very unlikely, especially after all of the safety standards that many nuclear energy companies have put in place in recent years.

The third and fourth type of mining uranium is heap leaching and in-situ leaching. According to the Environmental Protection Company, “Heap leaching is pouring chemicals over above-ground piles of crushed ore-bearing rock and collecting uranium through underground drains” (EPA). The similar process of in-situ leaching treats ore deep underground with chemicals to dissolve the uranium and then pumping the liquid to the surface through wells (EPA). The last two types of uranium mining do not have the negative health effects that open pit and underground mining are said to have. So if the US is considering nuclear energy, then maybe they should invest in the leaching technique to harvest the uranium.

The benefits of nuclear energy to the environment are much superior than any other energy source. A nuclear power plant has no controlled air pollutants, such as sulfur and particulates, or greenhouse gases. This already is completely different then coal-based energy. Nuclear energy is the most ecologically efficient of all energy sources because it produces the most electricity in relation to its minimal environmental impact. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, whose job it is to protect the environment states that, “nuclear power plants do not emit carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, or nitrogen oxides as part of the power generation process.” In the making of energy using coal, all of these mentioned chemicals and gases are emitted and cause irreparable harm to the environment. “However, fossil fuel emissions are associated with the uranium mining and uranium enrichment process as well as the transport of the uranium fuel to and from the nuclear plant” (EPA). I think that as the harvesting of uranium continues and becomes more popular, more regulations will be put into place and there will be less cases of radiation and emission of fossil fuels from the uranium mining.

Not only is nuclear energy better for the environment, but it also produces jobs that are desperately needed in the areas where nuclear power plants are located. According the Nuclear Energy Institute, who creates polices and rules that are supposed to be followed by nuclear energy companies, the “construction of a new nuclear power plant creates up to 3,500 jobs at peak construction” (NEI). The plant itself will employ 400 to 700 employees and produce additional jobs for the services that the nuclear power plant requires. New houses and businesses will need to be built for the employees to live close to the plant and that can create and equal number of jobs that don’t require any form of a degree. I believe that this will drastically stimulate the United States economy and create jobs that are desperately needed. The number of jobs that are being produced outweighs the highly unlikely possibility of getting sick from the uranium. In the US jobs are getting hard to come by and the more that can be produced, the better.

One of the only problems nuclear energy poses is its ability to affect a nation on a large scale if something goes wrong. On April 26, 1986 during the middle of the night, there was a power surge at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine. This surge caused one of the reactors to rupture and a series of explosions. The fires sent a radioactive gas cloud into the atmosphere that touched many different countries. This caused more then 100,000 people to be relocated over the next 30 years. The radiation affected over 500,000 people and left them with severe illnesses and mutations.

According to a radiation projection in 1994, 31 people died directly from the Chernobyl accident. According to a report by the World Health Organization, they say that the death toll could rise up to 4,000 people if one were to include the radiation poisoning that many people received (WHO).

The Chernobyl incident also led to the pollution of the Pripyat River that leads throughout Europe, and the death of over 4 kilometers of forest that was near the plant. The 19 miles surrounding the plant have been labeled the exclusion zone, and no one is allowed in or out. The area is said to have such high radiation contamination that it will not be safe for human life again for another 20,000 years (Knauer). This is the reason that nuclear energy could be the thing that will destroy us. Though nuclear energy is safe while it is working properly, if something were to go wrong, then it’s game over. The damage that can come from an exploded reactor could jeopardize the entire country, especially if more plants are opened in close proximity to one another. The resulting explosion could cause a domino affect and could kill and injure hundreds of thousands of people.

Meltdowns only happen very rarely and most are caused by accidents, which nuclear companies try to prevent to the best of their ability. However, there is one aspect of nuclear energy pollution that is the result of humans. The byproducts of the production of nuclear energy can remain radioactive for over 1,000 years. This requires the proper disposal of the waste products in a way where they will not harm anyone or the environment, and still remain safe. What companies have been doing is sealing the waste in steel sealed bins and storing them underground or in vaults filled with water and sealing them off. Unfortunately one of the problems with these facilities is that they become overfilled very fast, resulting in the pollution of nearby towns and the dumping of waste in an unsafe process. At the Maxey Flat low-grade nuclear waste facility in Kentucky, they covered the nuclear waste with dirt, instead of steel or cement, and the result was that the dirt collapsed during a rainstorm, which caused the rainwater to become radioactive. The company itself then had to properly dispose of the radioactive water, and the company had only itself to blame (Maxey Flats). Something could have been done about the Maxey Flat. The federal government had been making new regulations, but they were too late, the damage was already done.

After the Maxey incident the federal government stepped in again to try and make changes. But as author John Abbots writes, the changes are not good enough. “In final rules promulgated in December 1982, the Commission required burial ground licensees to demonstrate adequate financial qualifications to operate their facilities and to provide adequate financial provisions for site closure. But once again, the regulations contain serious loopholes: By requiring federal or state ownership of burial site land, insuring that the land will revert to the government upon site closure, the regulations also insure that any insufficiency of funds for long-term maintenance will be borne by future taxpayers” (Abbots). I completely agree with Abbots; if the government pushes the problem onto the state, the entire state will be affected and it is not fair to the people if the nuclear energy company makes a mistake. If they are at fault, they should pay the cost and suffer the punishment. If nuclear energy is to rise to the main stage, then something needs to be done about the proper disposal of nuclear radioactive waste.

For decades America’s reliance on coal to produce electricity has provided jobs and allowed for a quick cheap energy fix. Coal has always been cheaper and will be cheaper for as long as coal is still on the planet. Unlike other forms of energy, coal provides many jobs in removing coal from the earth, transporting it to the utility, burning it, and properly disposing of coal ash. Therefore the people who live in the area and work the companies would much rather have coal based energy reliance then nuclear energy or natural gas. The problem with this is that the coal industry leaders do not care about the people; they care about winning political points and making more money. As Mark Stern writes in his article, describing why many coal industries had numerous layoffs after the reelection of President Barack Obama, “Coal companies have spent millions lobbying against regulations, protesting the link between coal and climate change, and even discouraging energy conservation. Coal might be dying, but it’s not because of a few modest regulations enacted by the Obama administration” (Stern). Since in office, President Obama has made regulations on limiting the mercury emissions from the coal industry, but it had nothing to do with making life more difficult on these companies. The companies spent millions of dollars on political campaigns instead of paying its workers. The companies blamed Obama for having to fire employees, when really the companies are at fault.

Not only do they not care about their employees, the coal industry itself has a terrible negative impact on the environment. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, whose mission is to ensure America’s security and prosperity by addressing its energy, environmental and nuclear challenges through transformative science and technology solutions, “each year energy-related carbon dioxide emissions account for more than 80 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States” (Cleaning Up Coal). Greenhouse gases are gases in the atmosphere that absorb and emit thermal radiation. These gases are slowly warming the Earth and are melting the polar ice caps and causing irreparable damage to the entire planet. The World Health Organization and other sources say that coal air pollution attributes to about 1 million deaths/year (Wang). In recent years the United States has attempted to clean up the coal industry but with only minimal positive affects.

Besides coal and nuclear energy, there is another source of producing energy. Underneath the United States there are tiny bubbles of natural gas located in the shale bedrock. Manufacturing companies can tap into these bubbles and manipulate the natural gas to become an energy source. The process of extracting the gas is called hydrofracturing, or fracking. The Breast Cancer Action group has taken a special interest in fracking because of the health risks it poses. They define fracking as, horizontally boring through the bedrock, blasting it with explosives, and forcing it into the cracks, under enormous pressure, millions of gallons of water laced with a proprietary mix of poisonous chemicals that further fracture the rock. These boreholes then provide the channel of which the gas flows out of (Steingraber).

The problem with the United States using fracking as an acceptable alternative to coal or nuclear energy is that fracking is extremely dangerous not only for the health risks, but for the environment as well. The toxic chemicals that are used in the process of fracking can contaminate the water supply and can make the entire aquifer undrinkable. The air pollution from fracking is similar to that of diesel fuel and formaldehyde and can cause many different forms of cancer and weakens the ozone layer. The only benefit that coal offers is that it is extremely cheap. But what America has to ask is, do we want better quality or the cheapest thing? I know that when I go shopping for jeans or purses (items that will last a long time), I go for the more expensive pair because they will last longer. I think that this same principal needs to be applied to the question of what America should use to supply its energy.

In the social history Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, author Jared Diamond explains the different ways in which a society might fail or collapse. In a crucial chapter of the book, “Why Do Some Societies Make Disastrous Decisions?” he explains why “When the problem does arrive, the group may fail to perceive it”(Pgs. 424-426). Over time the effects of nuclear energy will cause permanent relationship damage between countries and environmental side affects that can affect the entire world, but because the affects take longer to show over time, many citizens are not aware of the harmful, negative side affects. A nuclear reactor may fail due to human or mechanical error, so it rarely happens, and the nuclear waste has to build up and be disposed of improperly to become an issue. This is why many people do not foresee nuclear energy to be a current problem.

As the years pass, America’s reliance for energy only increases. We need to think about what is best for our country. Should we destroy the environment and the health of our citizens just for the cheaper solution? The answer is no and Americans need to demand that the United States think about what is better for its people and its land. Nuclear energy may have the downside of being possibly catastrophic if something bad were to happen, but due to safety regulations and increased security the risk is at an all time low. The dangers of the alternatives are just not suitable for the environment or its inhabitants. So if the question is asked, should the United States be in a nuclear relationship, the answer is yes.


Works Cited
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