As our fossil fuel reserves continue to deplete the race is on to find alternative methods of energy generation to ensure that we continue to have a ready supply of energy. Nuclear power is the most controversial solution to our energy problems that has been proposed. It’s also probably the most anti-green of all alternatives to fossil fuels. On the other hand, greener forms of renewable energy, such as wind or solar power, are less robust but environmentally friendly solutions.
As the debate continues between pro-nuclear and anti-nuclear camps, here’s an overview of how nuclear power is generated, what the dangers are and what the pros and cons compared to greener energy alternatives are…
How is Nuclear Energy Generated?Nuclear power is generated using Uranium, but the process itself works more or less the same way as fossil fuel-burning power stations. Heat is generated through the process of nuclear fission, CO2 is pumped it to cool the reactor and create steam, which then drives the energy generators.
Benefits of Nuclear PowerIn terms of nuclear power's damage to the environment, there is actually a minimal amount of waste created in the energy generation process. It uses, but does not produce, carbon dioxide, so it does not contribute directly to climate change or the Greenhouse effect.
It's the relative cheapness of nuclear power generation that's one of the main arguments for embracing nuclear energy more widely. It's possible to create an optimum amount of energy using a relatively small amount of raw material. Nuclear is also reliable and can effectively supply enough energy for our needs on a similar scale that fossil fuels do now in the UK. France, for example, generates 80% of its energy through nuclear.
Dangers of Nuclear PowerUnfortunately there are health and environmental risks that accompany nuclear power generation and make it a less appealing energy option than other possibilities.
Though the amount of waste created during the nuclear generation process is fairly small, nuclear waste disposal remains a risk to human health. No safe solution has yet been devised to store its carcinogenic toxic radioactive waste, some of which is dangerous for thousands of years. There is also a detrimental risk posed to local eco-systems, rivers and wildlife if nuclear waste isn't disposed of properly.
Having an active nuclear programme in the UK also leaves us vulnerable to the possibility of nuclear accidents or even terrorist attack. These pose great health and security risks to people. The disaster at Chernobyl in Russia in 1986 demonstrated the devastating and long term effects a nuclear disaster can have on a large geographical area, and how eco-systems and local environments suffer when nuclear energy generation goes wrong.
How Does it Compare to Green Energy Generation?While nuclear may be more reliable than solar or wind generation – which are to some extent subject to seasonality – it is also widely acknowledged that the UK could potentially be served a large quantity of its annual energy needs through renewable forms.
Other European countries such as Germany are closing their nuclear power stations and instead moving towards heavier reliance on non-nuclear forms of energy generation.
Nuclear is also unpopular when it comes to locating nuclear plants. People are often fearful of the health risks associated with nuclear if sites are placed too close to where they live. Wind energy is seen as a cleaner, greener form of energy generation but people can be equally reluctant to have a wind turbine near their home, perceived as noisy or ugly.
Finally, wind farms and hydro electric power stations are much quicker to build, install and get working – sometimes in less than a year. Nuclear power stations can often take up to ten years to get up and running, with the building process itself being very time, labour and energy intensive. And with climate change becoming an increasing problem, a quicker resolution will be better for the environment.