Using Nuclear Energy Presents Similar Problems to Fossil Fuels
On December 2, 1942, the world’s first nuclear reactor was tested on the floor of an abandoned handball court beneath the University of Chicago . At 3:25 that afternoon, the fission chain reaction inside what was known as Chicago Pile-1 became self-sustaining and the possibility of powering cities from the energy locked safely inside the atom became a reality. Thus opened the optimistic age when electric companies, in their eagerness to promote this new resource, assured the public that power would be so cheap to produce that there would be no need to even meter it. This optimism and excitement was soon tarnished, however, as the hazards, environmental costs, and the dangers of what was released along with energy from inside the uranium atom became apparent.
The environmental impact of nuclear fuels has proven to be much greater than the original estimates of the fledgling industry. The solution to the problem of how to safely store tons and tons of nuclear waste, which remains extremely dangerous to life for hundreds of thousands of years, has still not been discovered after 5 decades of nuclear research. Underscoring this reality is the fact that the nuclear industry in the United States has asked the federal government for protection from liabilities from potential nuclear disasters and for help dealing with the constantly increasing amounts of high-level nuclear waste.
The mining of uranium inflicts great damage on local ecology and greatly increases the rates of cancer among miners. Uranium is a radioactive element. As it decays it creates a plethora of highly dangerous by-products, thorium-230, radium-226, radon-222 and the extremely dangerous elements lead-210 and polonium-210. In the course of digging up the ore, the miners fill the air in the mineshafts with these deadly substances and breathe them in. These radioactive elements settle in the miners’ lungs delivering a strong dose of alpha radiation directly to the lung tissue. In a study published in 1980, the British Columbia Medical Association published a report entitled “The Health Dangers of Uranium Mining.” This report made it clear that the BCMA believed that ever-increasing incidences of lung cancer among Canadian miners would be the result of continued mining of Uranium in Canada .
Once the rock containing the ore is brought to the surface, it is crushed and the useful uranium is extracted. The leftover material, including 85% of the total radioactivity, litters the ground in the form of uranium “tailings” which are simply stockpiled, often above ground, where they continue to emit dangerous radon gas. Canada alone has 200 million pounds of tailings. A report delivered to the British Colombia Royal Commission of Inquiry declared that the failure to properly handle uranium tailings has led to internal lung doses calculated to be 100 rems per year to the local public. Calculations show that the public in areas near uranium tailings will receive 25 percent higher radon daughter radiation over the course of their lifetimes than populations living at a safe distance from the tailings.
The quantity of nuclear reserves is as finite and limited as that of fossil fuels. Uranium Institute figures estimate the total world recoverable resources of uranium at 3,256,000 tons. Existing power plants operational worldwide require 75,000 tons of uranium a year to produce roughly 17% of the total world power requirements. The total resources will be sufficient to meet current and anticipated demand for only 42 years.
It might be argued that the so-called breeder reactors create, in the process of their operation, abundant fuel. That fuel, however, is plutonium, and there is great concern that a world plutonium market would make cheap, weapons grade plutonium a common commodity, increasing the risks to non-proliferation of nuclear arms and terrorist theft. In addition, breeder reactors are the most dangerous of all the reactors in terms of environmental hazards, and the extra dangers imposed by the handling of extremely toxic plutonium make the breeder reactors very costly.
Combine these arguments with the fact that fissionable elements can be better applied to a myriad of other uses such as nuclear medicine, materials testing and much more, it is clear that consuming them simply to heat water is wasteful of an extraordinary and limited resource.
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