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Realism About Clean Energy

Clean electricity from ‘new renewables’ – solar, wind, biomass and geothermal power – deserves strong support. But the collective capacity of these technologies to produce electricity in the decades ahead is limited. The OECD projects that, even with 20 further years of subsidy and research support, these ‘new renewables’ can provide less than 3% of world electricity.

Environmentalists have played a valuable role in warning that catastrophic climate change is a real and imminent danger. It is crucially important that they be equally realistic about solutions. Even with maximum conservation – and a landscape covered by solar panels and windmills – we would still need large-scale sources of around-the-clock electricity to meet much of our energy needs.

The environmental impact of any power generation station can be measured by quantifying the burden of fuel delivery, emissions of byproducts and wastes and the potential impact on the lives (human or otherwise) of those living nearby.

In contrast to fossil fuel plants (coal, oil and gas), nuclear power plants do not produce any carbon dioxide or sulfur emissions, which are major contributors to the greenhouse effect and acid rain, respectively.  According to the Nuclear Energy Institute, U.S. nuclear power plants prevent 5.1 million tons of sulfur dioxide, 2.4 million tons of nitrogen oxide, and 164 million metric tons of carbon from entering the earth's atmosphere each year.
Nuclear power – like wind, hydro and solar energy – can generate electricity with no carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gas emissions. The critical difference is that nuclear energy is the only proven option with the capacity to produce vastly expanded supplies of clean electricity on a global scale. Far from being competitors, nuclear power and ‘new renewables’ are urgently needed as partners if the world’s immense clean energy needs are to be met.

Although nuclear power reactors do contribute a measurable increase in radiation to the environment around a nuclear power plant, the increase is relatively small compared to natural background radiation, and is less than the radioactivity released from a typical coal plant.  Even with this increase in radiation, most employees of nuclear power plants receive exposures typically of workers in all occupations.  In addition, no evidence exists that show that small increases in radiation exposure having negative health effects.

The most pressing environmental concern facing the nuclear industry is the issue of waste disposal.  All processes produce waste.  Nuclear waste from a power plant is unique in that it can be highly radioactive.  While highly radioactive waste is hazardous to all living beings, nuclear fuel is amenable to containment, treatment, reduction and reprocessing (recycling).  Processes have been developed to separate reusable fuel and the highly radioactive elements from used nuclear fuel.  The waste products can then be made into a glass or ceramic waste pellet for disposal.  The hazard associated with this pellet has a expected duration of about 100 years.  Considering that chemical hazards maintain their nature indefinitely, this waste form may be preferable.  Currently, such a waste treatment process is not being utilized in the United States because of political resistance; however, research continues to find new solutions to this problem.

(excerpted from World Nuclear Association's autoessay "Energy for Sustainable Development")

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