We need energy to provide electrical power to our homes and support our infrastructure, to name a few. So, the question is not: How do we live without power? The real question is: How do we pick the safest power-generation industry to supply electricity for our needs?
Most of the power generation in the United States is produced by turbine generators; a fluid or gas passed by blades rotating on a shaft and turning to convert mechanical energy into electrical energy. The method of sending the gas or liquid to the turbine is promoted through various fuels. In a steam turbine, for example, these fuels heat water to produce steam, which then, through various designs, drives the turbine blades. Coal, natural gas, nuclear (uranium), and petroleum are examples of fuels used to heat the water in steam turbines. The mix of which fuels are used, and when and where they are used, is changing, based upon many considerations such as pollution and safety concerns.
What Fuel Do We Use Now?
Within the United States, coal is by far the most common fuel. In 2010, more than 45% of the electrical generation used coal as its fuel. Natural gas is second on the list at 24%, and nuclear power, at 20%, is produced through 104 reactors in 31 states. The remaining power producers, such as solar and wind, produce much lower percentages of our nation’s power.
World electrical power fuel, as of 2007, gave oil the top billing at 36.04%, followed by natural gas at 23.39%, coal at 26.84% and Nuclear at 5.84%.
Safest Fuels: Nuclear vs. Coal and Oil
Numbers don’t lie; nuclear power wins the safety contest hands down. After 14,000 reactor-years of operation, over a 50-year history, three significant accidents have occurred: Three Mile Island (1979), Chernobyl (1986), and Fukushima(2011). With this extended operation history, only Chernobyl and Fukushima resulted in radiation exposure with the worst nuclear death toll of 58 people at Chernobyl, and none so far from Fukushima. Increased thyroid cancer as a result of radiation released from Chernobyl involved about 4000 people, of which most was curable.
Compare this safety record to coal and petroleum; statistically a lot deadlier.
Pollution: For oil pollution, look no further than the Gulf of Mexico spill or its contribution to global warming. Coal, although inexpensive to recover, has mercury and carbon dioxide as by-products, both requiring expensive treatment options. In addition, the amount of radiation produced from a coal plant far exceeds that of a nuclear plant.
Health Risks: Let’s talk about death tallies. In one year, over 4,000 U.S. coal miners are injured and nearly 24,000 die prematurely from diseases such as lung cancer (black lung disease).
Is Nuclear Power Safe?
With the recent Fukushima accident, the public wants to know: is nuclear power safe? The answer lies with the design and age of the individual power plant. From the advent of the nuclear power plant option, there has been an awareness of the potential hazard from release of radioactivity. The basics of nuclear power are uranium dioxide pellets with a 5% enrichment of U-235 splits to produce energy and particles that heat the water and start a chain reaction. The heat then drives steam towards the turbine and produces electrical power.
The nuclear plant design has evolved throughout the years.
- After the Three Mile Island accident occurred, significant testing followed to strengthen design against future melt-downs and potential radiation release.
- Chernobyl made clear the need for a containment as the few remaining plants were upgraded or shut down and more modifications to older plants ensued.
- Automation became an important upgrade for older plants, since operator error was a leading cause in the Chernobyl accident.
- New training and automation are now part of the licensing of new reactors and upgrades to older ones.
- The recent Fukushima accident caused the nuclear industry to re-evaluate their safety standards, the results add another round of progressive upgrading.
- The age of the reactor may cause further closures.
One thing is for sure, through the wisdom gleaned from these three significant nuclear accidents, the future of nuclear power plant design has the public safety first and foremost. New design, redundancy, and automation remove even more risk from an already safety-conscious industry.
The Answer is Clear: Nuclear Power is Safe
The three major reactor accidents have shown the industry that even among the worst accidents, few and far between, there is little loss of life, as compared to other fuels. In addition, nuclear power producers are constantly assessing safety upgrades, in an effort to protect the public from any pollution or harm. We are living in a energy-demanding world which will continue to increase its need. The proposed shift to electric cars is just one example. Nothing is risk-free, but risk can be minimized through constant review, upgrade and new designs. Nuclear generated power meets all these criteria, and more.
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Svoboda, Elizabeth. Debunking the Top 10 Energy Myths. (2010). Popular Mechanics. Accessed December 12, 2011.© Copyright 2011 Judy Haar, All rights Reserved. Written For: Decoded Science