Building and commissioning massive, complex nuclear plants requires huge government subsidies. Contrast this with wind or solar energy that are distributed and less dense supplies of energy. The amount of solar panels produced on an annual basis is equivalent to the construction of two nuclear facilities. The renewable solar approach seems simpler and safer, and not one requiring subsidies. Such sound
bytes are bolstered by the Rocky Mountain Institute, which believes that none of the centralized generating technologies, be it nuclear, coal, or natural gas, can compete with solar, wind, or other renewable sources in their efficiency and projected price drops over the coming decades. Already, in places like California, even without government subsidies, the 30-cent per kilowatt-hour crossover point has been achieved. Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) produces electricity in the summer at this cost, which is inline with the cost of a residential solar installation. While utility rates are trending upward, the cost of solar installations is dropping. Many advocates believe the time has come to shift from a centralized model of power distribution to a distributed one.
Renewable energy is everywhere, easy to tap, cheap to harness, and above all, human and climate friendly. It has the added bonus of feeding surplus electricity back into the electric grid. Nuclear power, however, provides tough competition with its powerful lobby claiming it is the best carbon displacer. A 2003 Massachusetts Institute of Technology study revealed that people concerned about global warming are neutral on the role of nuclear as either a solution or a problem in the climate crisis debate. What is not highlighted for the public is that for every $1,000 spent on nuclear reactors, another 10 tons of carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere because renewable energy investment was denied these funds. Some executives, such as the head of PG&E, who manage nuclear reactors, have concluded that global warming is a major threat. While PG&E has not advocated the building of new nuclear facilities, the company is investigating the use of solar thermal, a technology relying on focused sunlight to boil water and drive a turbine to produce electricity. The head of the Southern Company holds the opposite position. In their 2005 annual report, this large utility in the southeastern United States claimed that, "... nuclear energy must remain an option for expanding our generating fleet because it has proven to be safe, reliable, and cost-effective, with relatively low environmental impact." Here are two different views from two different coasts on generating power for the future of American consumers, and both claim to want to better address the environment.
Global warming makes it tricky operating nuclear power plants. The European heat wave of 2003 caused river levels in France to fall, more so than usual, owing to the lack of rainfall. Electricite de France, the French power company, employed reservoir-fed high-pressure hoses to cool its nuclear plants. This partial solution was not enough and heated, secondary cooling water was discharged into the river. This 25 degree C water is a source of thermal pollution and a danger to aquatic life, and in an ironic twist, one of the symptoms of global warming is rising water temperature. Nuclear cooling water can contribute directly to warmer water, rather than indirectly doing so via the carbon dioxide route. In fact, global warming itself may be the reason for closure of nuclear power plants in the future.
Another factor when considering closing plants is the safety concern raised about nuclear facilities operating in geographies prone to earthquakes. A 6.8 temblor in July 2007, injured and killed people in Japan and forced the evacuation of thousands of people, while igniting a fire in a nuclear power plant. Japan operates 55 nuclear reactors within its boundaries, which generate 30 percent of its electrical supply. Although all of the affected reactors were shut down, more than 300 gallons of low-level radioactive water was dumped into the sea. While investigations continue, people remain jittery about the ability of nuclear facilities to remain safe during an earthquake. Furthermore, the reliance on nuclear as a centralized power source is hampered when plants are shut down. Power is removed from areas beyond a natural disaster, just when emergency workers and hospitals need electricity most.
For each ton of solid reactant carbon, 3.7 tons of carbon dioxide gas products are released into the atmosphere. The prevailing theory for global warming is based on the fact that an increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations leads to an increase in the average global surface temperature. Although carbon dioxide accounts for half of the associated temperature rise, other gases contribute to the balance. Methane from rice paddies and herds of cattle and chlorofluorocarbons from the nuclear fuel cycle and other industrial processes contribute, in part, to the second half of the temperature rise. Some analysts of the nuclear fuel cycle believe that as less accessible uranium is mined after 2020, more fossil fuel will be required to extract the uranium than would be to burn the petroleum directly. Going forward, the receding source of uranium will result in the production of more greenhouse gases those that produced by petroleum-fired generating plants.
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Do we really want the one thing that gives us its resources unconditionally to suffer even more than it is suffering now? Nature, is a part of our being from the earliest human days. We respect Nature and it gives us its bounty, but in the recent past greedy money hungry corporations have made us all so destructive, so wasteful.