Nuclear power, because of its use for both peaceful and military purposes, causes angst among some people – and produces fuel for those with other purposes, albeit competing energy sources, religion or politically belligerent politics.
As nuclear power was being developed in the 1970s in the United States, the Three Mile Island incident occurred (in March 1979; no one was killed or irradiated outside the plant, although two workers were burned with hot water). Accidents happen occasionally with any industrial activities, but media reports of the incident panicked us all into retreating from nuclear power because of the fear of radioactivity.
Then, the Chernobyl disaster (within a dual military-commercial reactor with serious design flaws) occurred a few years later, which caused us to retreat even further from using nuclear power to generate electricity. Heroic workers and fireman trying to control the fire lost their lives. And, nearly 4,000 children subsequently contracted thyroid cancer (almost 99 percent of them have recovered after treatment).
After years of debate and re-evaluation of the event’s impact, the merits of nuclear power emerged again from the plethora of emotional adversaries to demonstrate its usefulness on the basis of its economic viability and on its actual safety record. After decades passed, and because of economic necessity, nuclear plant construction began again, this time to replace older reactor models and to begin installing improved nuclear power plants.
But then again, in 2011, an earthquake off Japan’s coast created tsunamis that created havoc and caused the death of thousands of people, and which also flooded and damaged the backup power supply system that was designed to run the water pumps to keep the fuel rods cool at the plant in Fukushima.
Absent the power to the pumps, the core of fuel rods overheated and was exposed while the water boiled away, and hydrogen gas collected in the building. The gas was ignited by an electrical spark, creating the explosion that demolished the plant building and contributed to releasing radioactive material to the surrounding areas. But no one has been killed because of radiation.
After many months of sampling the region, the general conclusions have been reached by the scientific community that although radiation was released it was not widespread. More importantly, the level of radiation reportedly didn’t reach dangerous levels except near the plant.
Also, the world revisited the safety features of the more than 435 reactors (especially those built along coastlines), and have redesigned the back-up power systems to avoid such failures in the future. One design even included a small nuclear reactor installed underground onsite to provide emergency power, if needed.
Over the past year or so we have observed strong evidence that nuclear power is into a new expansion period.
Japan has realized that it must re-start most of its existing nuclear power plants because they need economic power supplies (wind, solar and geothermal sources have not been shown to be economic or scalable). The existing plants are now being equipped with new systems to withstand earthquakes and any tsunami of the magnitude anticipated in the future.
The United States, United Kingdom, Brazil, Bolivia, India, Vietnam, Poland, Jordan, Egypt and the UAE have begun to build, and Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern countries are considering nuclear as the energy of choice. Even Germany is re-considering their option for politically and environmentally safe and economically sensible sources of energy. There are 44 reactors under construction in China.
Russia and India also are gearing up to begin new construction, and five new plants are under construction in the United States. More than 40 other sites are either under consideration or in design stages, all amounting to over 600 planned to be operational worldwide within the next 30 years, and earlier if the new standard design reactors are adopted.
With the anticipated demand for uranium fuel, the uranium prices have begun to rise, which naturally sparks uranium company exploration, mergers and acquisitions, and new mining and processing plants coming on-line in the United States, Australia, Canada, Kazakhstan and an increasing number of locations throughout the world, with early activities beginning to explore off world on the moon and Mars by China and India – and just recently the United States.
Coal may even become useful in time for more than burning to produce electricity. A new Carbon Age is dawning using “clean coal,” after all, and is no longer just an oxymoron, but many industrial and academic researchers have visions of coal becoming germane economically and environmentally sound. Products of carbon will become widespread in the foreseeable future, both on Earth and off world.
In our function to monitor what is going on these days in the energy arena, the EMD Uranium Committee has concluded that natural gas and nuclear power will dominate energy sources for decades to come, both of which likely will replace coal, while wind and solar will continue to be tested to determine if they can have a significant place in the energy picture (after government subsidies are removed), and whether they can be scaled up to meet the needs in other than remote areas away from national power grids and to meet the operation and maintenance demands of their moving parts.
Climate change issues will re-enforce the domination of the two energy sources; however, there is some recent evidence that with increasing temperatures come increasing methane releases from the deep sediments offshore, which may even have a more serious impact on the climate than CO2 releases.
But by moving away from burning coal, the transition to additional nuclear power systems in the form of either large-scale plants or in the form of small modular reactors that will soon be coming down the road on a trailer truck or railroad car, will finally come into their own, driven by the merits of their economy and outstanding safety record. The transition from burning coal to other reliable energy sources (like natural gas and nuclear power) will likely be slow because industry cannot change quickly unless companies are placed on an emergency footing.
However, a large number of coal-fired plants are still in the planning stage for construction in the United States. Such changes in our energy usage may not become widespread in this decade, but they certainly will be apparent in the decades beyond.
Competition between energy sources is a good thing as long as it is based on economics and environmental factors.
We must not let biases scare us, stampede us and turn us toward one extreme or another in making our decision on energy sources.