Today we are living in a world that is becoming increasingly more environmentally conscious, yet consuming more energy than ever. Having such high-energy demands creates many environmental issues, such as pollution, land exploitation, and the consumption of finite resources. In order to begin a true conservationalist society, solutions must be found that satisfy our growing energy needs, and reduce our impact on the environment. Right now we have many sources of energy, of which nuclear and coal are the predominant energy sources of today. Since these are the major energy sources a logical step in the solution process is discovering the pros and cons of each source.
Coal energy is very inexpensive and easy to recover, and accounts for approximately 40% of electric energy produced worldwide, down from 74% in 1937. In order to derive energy coal must first be mined, then transported to another location where the coal will be burned, which results in the release of toxic pollutants into the atmosphere. Coal energy is a significant contributor to both global warming and acid rain because of its high carbon and sulfur content. There also exist the harmful effects of both mining for the coal and of transporting the bulky product.
There are several ways to mine for coal, the most significant of which are strip mining, and underground mining. Strip mining, as the name implies, requires massive amounts of soil be removed in order to expose the coal. Such actions leave enormous scars on the earth and require years for reclamation to occur. The eyesores created by mining underground are not as large however, the perils of underground mining have claimed hundreds if not thousands of miners lives in both accidents and diseases brought on by the extreme exposure to coal products.
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Then comes the extremely expensive task of transporting the coal from the mining sites to locations all around the world. Because of the bulky nature of coal, it requires a massive transportation system, which itself uses other fuels further contributing to the pollution problem. There seems to be little hope of decreasing the size of this operation, since it is entirely dependant upon the physical characteristics of the coal itself.
Nuclear energy is the most concentrated source of energy currently available for use. The fuel to drive nuclear energy is also inexpensive, and nuclear energy creates the most compact waste of all the different types of energy. The major steps in the nuclear fuel cycle are as follows:
1. Mining of the ore; the danger of radiation exposures was long ignored however, the advancement of our knowledge of radioactivity has greatly reduced the risks involved with the mining process.
2.Milling; waste accounts for 99% of the resulting in great accumulations of mine tailings that have to be stored somewhere, the removal and storage of tailings still presents a problem.
5.Fuel Fabrication; once converted and enriched, the fuel is formed into ceramic balls and placed inside a tube, thus becoming a fuel rod.
6.Fuel Reprocessing; After the fuel rod is used up, it is placed underwater and stored for up to a year, after which the rod is disassembled and some of the leftover materials are reused in the enrichment phase.
7.Waste Management; Radioactive waste can have half-lives of tens of thousands of years, long-term solutions are needed. As of today waste in a concentrated liquid form is put in temporary depositories, with the hope of someday solidifying the waste so it can be stored for the long-term.
From these steps, one can see the basic processes required for nuclear energy to occur. The extreme amounts of tailings present a huge hurdle to overcome, researchers are currently searching for new methods to obtain the ore, which are both less wasteful and cost efficient. However, one large benefit of nuclear energy is the ease of recycling many of the nuclear core wastes.
There are no greenhouse or acid rain effects caused by the use of nuclear energy and the process itself has been thoroughly developed and understood by scientists. As with coal nuclear energy also has its drawbacks. First, nuclear plants are very expensive and require large amounts of capital before building can take place. Secondly, although the waste is very compact, the waste is also highly hazardous to the environment. And lastly there is the issue of nuclear meltdown, which is detrimental to life and the environment.
This last issue of meltdown or other possible cases of public exposure is the single largest factor limiting further implementation of nuclear power around the world. People assume that nuclear energy is extremely unstable, when it is actually extremely stable.
Coal power is much more hazardous than nuclear power, but people seem to be unwilling to accept nuclear energy and continue to use less safe coal energy. The transportation of nuclear energy is extremely safe. "No activity in the history of technology has as good a safety record and is accomplished with as little risk as the transportation of nuclear material." Knowing such a fact as this might begin to persuade those who doubt the safety of nuclear energy, and possibly embrace this technology.
With this brief look into the environmental crisis that human"s high energy needs have created, it is important for us to find a suitable solution that appeases our energy needs without destroying the environment any more. It is necessary to gauge the benefits against the risks of all of our energy sources, and determine which ones best suit our needs and the needs of the planet. We can no longer be an uneducated public, for the power governing which sources of energy are used ultimately lie in the hands of the public. Fear of what we do not understand is not the way to decide, people need to take the initiative to discover for themselves what is best for them, and more importantly what is best for the environment.
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