Nuclear power is once again considered a prominent alternative, despite the disregard it was met with in the 1970s. This is because it’s now being touted as a more environmentally beneficial solution since it emits far fewer greenhouse gases during electricity generation than coal or other traditional power plants.
It is widely accepted as a somewhat dangerous, potentially problematic, but manageable source of generating electricity. Radiation isn’t easily dealt with, especially in nuclear waste and maintenance materials, and expensive solutions are needed to contain, control, and shield both people and the environment from its harm.
The dialogue about using nuclear power – and expanding it – centers on weighing these risks against the rewards, as well as the risks inherent in other forms of power generation. These are just some of the issues involved.
An excerpt from Design is the Problem, by Nathan Shedroff, published by Rosenfeld Media
- Lower carbon dioxide (and other greenhouse gases) released into the atmosphere in power generation.
- Low operating costs (relatively).
- Known, developed technology “ready” for market.
- Large power-generating capacity able to meet industrial and city needs (as opposed to low-power technologies like solar that might meet only local, residential, or office needs but cannot generate power for heavy manufacturing).
- Existing and future nuclear waste can be reduced through waste recycling and reprocessing, similar to Japan and the EU (at added cost).
- High construction costs due to complex radiation containment systems and procedures.
- High subsidies needed for construction and operation, as well as loan guarantees.
- Subsidies and investment could be spent on other solutions (such as renewable energy systems).
- High-known risks in an accident.
- Unknown risks.
- Long construction time.
- Target for terrorism (as are all centralized power generation sources).
- Waivers are required to limit liability of companies in the event of an accident. (This means that either no one will be responsible for physical, environmental, or health damages in the case of an accident or leakage over time from waste storage, or that the government will ultimately have to cover the cost of any damages.)
- Nuclear is a centralized power source requiring large infrastructure, investment, and coordination where decentralized sources (including solar and wind) can be more efficient, less costly, and more resilient.
- Uranium sources are just as finite as other fuel sources, such as coal, natural gas, etc., and are expensive to mine, refine, and transport, and produce considerable environmental waste (including greenhouse gasses) during all of these processes.
- The majority of known uranium around the world lies under land controlled by tribes or indigenous peoples who don’t support it being mined from the earth.
- The legacy of environmental contamination and health costs for miners and mines has been catastrophic.
- Waste lasts 200 – 500 thousand years.
- There are no operating long-term waste storage sites in the U.S. One is in development, but its capacity is already oversubscribed. Yucca Mountain is in danger of contaminating ground water to a large water basin, affecting millions of people. It’s difficult, if not impossible, for the U.S. to impose its will on the state of Nevada (or other places) if they don’t want to host long-term storage of waste.
- There are no operating “next generation” reactors, such as high-temperature breeder reactors and particle-beam activated reactors, that are reported to produce less waste and have reduced safety concerns. Even if these technologies were ready, they wouldn’t be deployable commercially for another two decades.
- Shipping nuclear waste internationally poses an increased potential threat to interception to terrorism (though this has not happened yet with any of the waste shipped by other countries). Increasing the amount of waste shipped, particularly in less secure countries, is seen as a significant increase in risk to nuclear terrorism.
Learn about the future of biofuels here.
What about other energy sources?
Nathan Shedroff graduated from Presidio in 2006 and currently runs the first Design MBA program at California College of the Arts
Image credit: Flickr user Tobo
With the growing threat of climate change due to the excessive release of carbon emissions, many nations are looking to clean energy alternatives to replace traditional fossil fuels. Of all the clean energy alternatives, solar has arguably been the most expensive. However, after considering the pros and cons along with the 80% drop in solar panel prices over the last five years, the future of solar energy is looking rather bright.
The advantage of solar energy is that it is a sustainable alternative to fossil fuels. While fossil fuels have an expiration date that may be fast approaching, the sun is likely to be around for at least a few billion years. Additionally, 73,000 terawatts of solar energy shine down on the Earth’s surface every day, which is 10,000 times the daily global energy use. That’s an enormous supply just waiting for the technology that can harness it.
Low Environmental Impact
Solar energy has a substantially reduced impact on the environment compared to fossil fuels. Its greenhouse gas emissions are inconsequential as the technology does not require any fuel combustion. Also, although concentrating solar thermal plants (CSP) are comparatively inefficient in their water usage depending on the type of technology being used, the right technology significantly increases efficiency while photovoltaic (PV) solar cells do not require any water when generating electricity.
The one environmental downside to solar technology is that it contains many of the same hazardous materials as electronics. As solar becomes a more popular energy, the problem of disposing the hazardous waste becomes an additional challenge. However, assuming the challenge of proper disposal is met, the reduced greenhouse gas emissions that solar energy offers makes it an attractive alternative to fossil fuels.
Since the sun shines across the globe, it makes every country a potential energy producer, thus allowing for greater energy independence and security. Solar energy doesn’t only promise to bring security and independence at the national level; solar panels can be installed on individual homes, providing power that does not depend on being connected to a larger electrical grid.
One of the biggest problems that solar energy technology poses is that energy is only generated while the sun is shining. That means nighttime and overcast days can interrupt the supply. The shortage created by this interruption would not be a problem if there were low-cost ways of storing energy as extremely sunny periods can actually generate excess capacity. In fact, Germany – a leader in solar energy technology – is now focusing on developing adequate energy storage to deal with this issue.
Another concern is that solar energy may take up a significant amount of land and cause land degradation or habitat loss for wildlife. While solar PV systems can be fixed to already existing structures, larger utility-scale PV systems may require up to 3.5 to 10 acres per megawatt and CSP facilities require anywhere from 4 to 16.5 acres per megawatt. However, the impact can be reduced by placing facilities in low-quality areas or along existing transportation and transmission corridors.
Scarcity of Materials
Certain solar technologies require rare materials in their production. This, however, is primarily a problem for PV technology rather than CSP technology. Also, it is not so much a lack of known reserves as much as it is the inability of current production to meet future demand: many of the rare materials are byproducts of other processes rather than the focus of targeted mining efforts. Recycling PV material and advances in nanotechnology that increase solar cell efficiency could both help boost supply, but perhaps finding material substitutes that exist in greater abundance could play a role.
The Bottom Line
While solar energy technology has some disadvantages that make it somewhat expensive in certain markets, it is becoming an increasingly cost-competitive alternative to fossil fuels. The cons that add to the cost of solar energy could be rendered negligible by further technological advances that increase efficiency and storage capacity. Considering the enormous potential gains of harnessing the sun’s light and heat, it may be worth increasing the incentives for furthering the development of solar energy.