The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

November 17, 2018

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Nuclear Power and the Energy Crisis
P. E. Hodgson - 10/22/08


The safety of nuclear reactors can be quantified in the same way as the other sources as one death per thousand megawatt-years. The deaths are attributable to normal causes, such as those incurred in building, and are unrelated to specifically nuclear causes. This is less than all other sources except for natural gas. Negative public perception of safety is more influenced by rare and spectacular accidents rather than by such statistics. Thus in the years from 1969 to 1986 there have been one hundred eighty-seven mining disasters, three hundred thirty-four oil well fires, nine dam bursts, and one severe nuclear accident at Chernobyl, which is discussed below.

Environmental Effects

Nuclear reactors have four principal effects on the environment, first by emitting carbon dioxide, second by taking up valuable land, third by producing waste, and fourth by emitting radioactivity.

The amounts of carbon dioxide emitted by various power sources in grams per kWh are nuclear: 4, wind: 8, hydro: 8, geothermal: 79, gas: 430, oil: 828, and coal: 955. Other estimates give similar figures. These show that the fossil fuels—gas, oil, and coal—are the greatest emitters, and the other sources—nuclear, wind, and hydroelectric—emit less than about one percent of their amounts.

The land areas occupied by the various types of power stations in square meters per megawatt are nuclear: 630, oil: 870, gas: 1500, coal: 2400, solar: 100,000, hydro: 265,000 and wind: 1,700,000.

The radioactivity emitted by various power sources in man-sieverts per gigawatt-year are coal: 4.0, nuclear: 2.5, geothermal: 2, peat: 2, oil: 0.5 and gas: 0.03. These are all extremely small amounts, and it is noteworthy that coal power stations emit more radioactivity than nuclear power stations. This is because coal contains small but significant amounts of uranium, and a small fraction of this is emitted into the atmosphere. The amounts of uranium vary with the type of coal, and the above figure is a world average obtained by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Every year, a nuclear power reactor produces about four cubic meters (m3) of high level radioactive waste, 100 m3 of intermediate-level waste, and 530 m3 of low-level waste. The total amount of high-level waste produced in Britain from 1956 to 1986 was about 2000 m3, about the same volume as an average house. This is very small compared with the vast amounts of poisonous chemical waste produced by the manufacturing industries, much of which is buried in the sea or emitted into the atmosphere.

The low- and intermediate-level nuclear waste can safely be buried in deep trenches, but the high-level waste requires special attention. As the uranium or plutonium is burnt in the nuclear reactor, the products of fission accumulate in the fuel rods until they absorb so many neutrons that they prevent the reactor from working. To avoid this, spent fuel rods are continually removed from the reactor and replaced by new ones. The spent fuel rods are taken to the reprocessing plant where the uranium and plutonium are separated and used to make new fuel rods. The remaining portion contains the highly radioactive fission fragments. The first step in the disposal of this high-level waste is to store it in tanks above ground for a few decades so that most of the radioactivity from the short-lived nuclei decays. Then the remainder is concentrated and fused to form a glassy or ceramic substance. For extra safety this is placed in stainless steel containers and then buried far below the surface in a stable geological formation. There is then no chance that the fission products will escape and cause harm. This has been checked by a detailed study sponsored by the European Union. Eventually, over the years, the radioactivity of the fission fragments will decay until it is similar to that of the surrounding rocks.

It has been suggested that the radiation emitted from nuclear power stations increases the number of cases of leukaemia in the area. It has also been suggested that this radiation is responsible for long-tem genetic effects. These possibilities are discussed below.

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