Nuclear power and the environment

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As a stand-alone device, nuclear reactors do not emit greenhouse gases. The nuclear reaction is contained and the heat generated is used to boil water to turn turbines and produce electricity. Instead of a chemical reaction, an atomic reaction is required, produced by a process of fission using uranium fuel. Due to the splitting of atoms and the radioactive movement of neutrons, no carbon dioxide, methane, or other greenhouse gases are produced. However, the byproducts are toxic, radioactive wastes requiring storage for thousands of years. Analyzing the entire nuclear cycle, including the upfront uranium mining and refining, reveals that large amounts of fossil fuels are required. This, in part, is where the greenhouse gases come from. Such steps are also required to produce aluminum. The difference is that aluminum-based products can be recycled and reused in other forms.

With uranium, the atomic alteration it undergoes to boil water cannot be reversed. Like fossil fuels, uranium is a non-renewable resource. Recent reports from the International Atomic Energy Association (IAEA) reveal that the mining of easy uranium in places like Saskatchewan, Canada and Australia will run out around 2020, while the cost to extract it rises significantly. This uranium supply aspect of the nuclear cycle is like that of the disappearing petroleum feed stocks.

Another aspect of nuclear power production is the dangerous chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) dumped into the atmosphere during the enrichment of uranium, a complex technique needed to make the uranium suitable for use in fission reactors. It is so complex that only the United States, Britain, France, Germany, the Netherlands, and Russia export enriched uranium to other countries for use in their reactors. Regardless of the source, the enrichment process itself produces CFCs, which destroy the ozone layer. Furthermore, the CFC byproducts are 10,000 to 20,000 times more capable of holding heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide.

Like the oil industry, the nuclear industry is highly subsidized. This was reinforced in the U.S. Energy Act of 2005, which allocated $13 billion in subsidies. One of the rationales given is that nuclear-generated electricity will wean Americans from dependence on oil and strengthen national security. Looking at electricity generating statistics published by the Department of Energy (DOE) refutes this fallacy. In 2005, petroleum products fueled only 3 percent of electrical consumption. The bulk of the nation's petroleum is used for transportation, not for the production of electric power. In this energy-hungry sector, gas-elec tric hybrids and revitalized electric vehicles are being called upon to reduce petroleum consumption.

Nuclear power supplies 18 percent of the world's electricity, with countries such as France deriving 78 percent of their supply that way. In America, no new plant has been brought online since 1996, even as 19 percent of U.S. electrical production is derived from nuclear power. However, the dynamics of the nuclear industry have intensified with the rising public awareness of global warming. Relatively speaking, nuclear power is a kinder, gentler source of power for the climate. With this in mind, and the desire to meet its Kyoto commitment, Finland recently approved the world's largest nuclear reactor, at 1600 megawatts, to be brought online by 2009. Furthermore, the United States is giving nuclear technology to India to support their plans to build eight new reactors, in a deal struck in 2005. Comedians regularly lampooned the 2007 Bush administration for promoting nuclear energy as the foil to global warming, yet the federal government refuses to sign the Kyoto protocol.

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