Alternative Energy Sources: Is Nuclear Energy the Ultimate Solution?

 

The need for clean, environmentally friendly energy sources is greater than ever. Current research regarding the state of the global environment is overwhelming and shows continued decline in air quality, biodiversity, wetlands and fisheries, and depletion of the ozone layer. According to the United Nations Environment Programme, in the last century alone carbon dioxide levels in our atmosphere have increased by more than 25%. Also, an area of a rainforest the size of a football field is being destroyed each second.  It is critical that all nations come together to create workable solutions focused on stopping environmental destruction. This solution must be affordable, efficient, timely, and effective. Unfortunately, finding a solution is easier said than done.  Prior attempts have been made, such as the Kyoto Protocol, but without the combined effort of all nations, these attempts are likely to fall short. 

 

Currently, countries and multi national corporations (MNCs) are using more electricity, petroleum, gas, and coal than ever before.  An estimated 31.5 billion barrels of oil per year is used globally and oil dependence continues to increase. This increased demand will likely continue as the world’s population grows and advances its industry.  Presently, fossil fuels such as petroleum and gas are the leading source of energy.  However, fossil fuel dependence is dangerous for many reasons. First of all, there is a limited supply of coal, gas and oil, meaning that at some point in the future, fossil fuel supplies will run out. Fossil fuel dependence is also hazardous because their production and use create greenhouse gases. These gases damage the ozone layer and increase global warming trends. 

 

A warmer Earth may lead to changes in rainfall patterns, a rise in sea level, and a wide range of effects on plants, wildlife, and humans.  Scientists estimate that the Earth’s temperature has increased 1-2 degrees Fahrenheit in the past 100 years. If the Earth’s temperature continues to rise, this may lead to unexpected and unanticipated environmental consequences. Although few scientists argue the idea of global warming, the urgency and consequences of it are current subjects of debate.  Some scientists argue that global warming trends are increasing at a rapid pace.  They claim that global warming poses an immediate problem that needs to be dealt with now.  If not, future generations may not be able to enjoy an habitable planet.  Others, however, argue that global warming is not as serious as it is often made out to be.  Instead, these scientists claim that the Earth goes through warming and cooling cycles (i.e.: the Ice Age), thus a warmer planet at present is simply a part of such a cycle. It is up to you to decide which side is most accurate and in line with your country’s position.

 

Alternative Possibilities:

 

Although the majority of energy consumption at present comes from fossil fuels that produce negative side effects, alternative energy sources do exist. Indeed, there are many alternative energy sources that can be used instead of fossil fuels.  Alternative energy sources represent one way countries can work towards sustainable development.  Sustainable development refers to progress that meets the needs of the present population, but doesn’t hamper the ability of future generations to meet their needs.  In other words, sustainable development requires the careful and planned use of energy with the future in mind so that future generations enjoy the same planet we do now. Isn’t it only right to give future generations the ability to live in an habitable, healthy planet?

 

It is important to note that not all of these alternative energy options are widely available or economically efficient.  Further, some of these potential energy sources are not fully developed, thus their uses are even further limited.  Although each of the alternative energy sources listed below has its benefits, none are cost free.  It is your job to weigh these costs and benefits throughout the simulation.

 

Biomass energy is produced from organic materials and can be used to make fuel, heat, and electricity.  Biomass is plant matter and can be found in trees, grass, agricultural crops and other biological materials.  Wood is the largest bioenergy source that is used today, but there are many other bioenergy sources as well. Biomass energy can potentially reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  According to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, "The use of biomass can reduce dependence on foreign oil because biofuels are the only renewable liquid transportation fuels available." However, the use of biomass energy also has its downsides. Namely, because it is not widely used, the total consequences of biomass energy have yet to be seen.  Additionally, excessive use of bioenergy can be potentially harmful to the environment. For example, the limited use of wood for heat purposes is okay, but too much of its use can pollute the environment and use up wood supplies.

 

Solar energy refers to the radiation that is produced by the sun. This radiation can be transformed into energy, such as heat and electricity.  At present, solar energy is the fastest growing renewable energy after biodiesel.  Germany is the largest solar energy consumer followed by Japan. Solar energy is a clean alternative to fossil fuels; however, there are drawbacks to its use. First, because solar energy is not widely used, its production is costly. Second, solar radiation is irregular and inconsistent. For example, on cloudy days little energy can be harnessed. Finally, large areas of land are required to collect solar rays at an efficient rate.  These pros and cons combine to show solar energy as an alternative to fossil fuel dependence, but a transition to solar energy is not cost free.

 

Biodiesel refers to the clean burning alternative fuel, produced from renewable resources. It contains no petroleum.  It is primarily used in automotives with a diesel engine but can also be used as a source of heat in boiler rooms. Biodiesel is biodegradable, nontoxic, and essentially free of sulfur and aromatics. Biodiesel is made through a chemical process called transesterification whereby the glycerin is separated from the fat or vegetable oil. The process leaves behind two products -- methyl esters (the chemical name for biodiesel) and glycerin (a valuable byproduct usually sold to be used in soaps and other products).  At present, biodiesel is more expensive than petroleum and some claim that a switch to biodiesel would require an enormous production of crops; therefore, huge tracks of land would be needed to produce such crops.

 

Image PreviewWind energy is another alternative, clean energy source to fossil fuels. Wind energy is produced by wind turbines that sit atop towers and turn to produce electricity.  Wind turbines can be used for individual purposes, such as powering a family’s home, or they can be used to power entire villages, given that there are enough of them. Wind power can also be combined with other energy sources such as solar energy systems.  In 2005, the United States installed more wind energy capacity than any other country in the world. Additionally, the Global Wind Energy Council claims that the installed capacity of wind power increased by nearly 26% from the end of 2005 to end of 2006. The downside to wind power is that in order to power large areas, wind farms need to be built and they require a large amount of land.  If this land is not available than it is not possible to operate a wind farm and produce this type of alternative energy source.

 

Hydropower is energy created from moving water and is the oldest source of energy production. The making of hydropower electricity is a fairly simple process: water is captured and held in either dams or small canals. When needed, it is released and flows through spinning turbines, which create electricity.  Hydropower is a clean energy source because it does not pollute the air or water and it is also a renewable energy source (RES) because water can be reused in the process. In fact, hydropower is highly used in both developed and developing countries. At present, Canada is the largest user of hydropower in the West. The downside to hydropower is that countries without access to abundant water sources are not able to develop hydropower energy. Additionally, hydropower can damage river habitats and freshwater fish populations.

 

Geothermal energy is energy that comes from the Earth’s core.  For example, geothermal heat pumps have the ability to tap into reservoirs of hot water found beneath the surface of the Earth. During the winter, these pumps can funnel hot air into buildings for warmth. Geothermal energy can also be used to cool buildings through a similar process, and it can produce electricity. This type of energy is best used for individual purposes and/or small-end applications. It is also valuable in that it helps to counteract air pollution.  The downside of geothermal energy is that those who want to use it must live close to geothermal heat sources, which are not spread equally throughout the globe.  In addition, research on the large scale use of geothermal energy is only in its beginning stages.

 

An additional energy source is nuclear energy.  Nuclear energy expansion is a controversial subject as there are a number of pros and cons associated with nuclear power.  It is your job throughout the simulation to assess if wider use of nuclear power is the right alternative to fossil fuel dependence or whether a different alternative energy source is more appropriate for both your country as well as the world.

 

 

Nuclear Power:

 

Nuclear energy is created when atoms split.  Through this natural process, heat is generated.  Nuclear power plants run on uranium fuel.  When uranium atoms split, they produce heat, which is transformed into electricity through a very simple process.  In short, nuclear power plants use this uranium fuel to produce electricity. Scientists estimate that the Earth has enough raw materials for thousands of years of nuclear power production. These findings are encouraging when compared with the very limited amount of fossil fuel availability. 

 

Nevertheless, nuclear power is a controversial subject.  Some nations argue that nuclear power is a clean form of energy, especially when compared with fossil fuels.  It is cheap to produce and is abundant; therefore, manufacturers/consumers do not have to worry about uranium supplies running out.  Others argue that the use of nuclear power has the potential threat of nuclear energy’s use as a weapon. If the technology fell into the wrong hands, nuclear weapons production could pose a threat to all countries in the world.  Finally, the threat of nuclear waste and reactor failure, both potentially producing toxic radiation, need to be considered too.

 

 

The Benefits of Nuclear Energy

 

Image PreviewNuclear energy is a clean alternative to fossil fuels.  Nuclear power plants do not pollute the air with emissions like carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide or nitrogen oxides as do other energy alternatives, namely coal, gas and oil.  All of these byproducts are harmful to the environment and to individuals within the environment.  Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming and the depletion of the ozone layer.  Sulfur dioxide can be irritating to the lungs and nitrogen oxides can irritate asthmatic conditions.  When nitrogen oxide dissolves into atmospheric moisture, acid rain is produced and this is also harmful to the environment.

 

Although nuclear power plants do produce waste, when handled properly it does not pose a threat to the environment. Nuclear power plants produce two types of radioactive waste: high-level waste and low-level waste.  High-level waste refers to used fuel. During the fission process when uranium fuel is being used up, electricity is generated along with fission byproducts.  As these byproducts accumulate, they can interfere with electricity production.  When fuel can no longer be used because it does not produce electricity efficiently, it is considered used and needs to be replaced – in general, nuclear fuel is good for a number of years. 

 

There are both temporary and permanent ways to store used fuel, although both processes must be handled with care (in order to avoid any type of spillage or accident). Initially, high level waste including used fuel is safely handled by processes within the nuclear power plant that do not expose individuals to radiation.  Once the waste is safely contained it is usually stored inside the plant in water-filled, steel-lined concrete pools.  It can also be stored on the plant property in steel-lined containers.  High-level waste should only be stored in nuclear plants temporarily.  Permanent storage facilities are located underground in a tunnel network that is shielded.  That way, it does not endanger any type of ecosystem or individuals. 

 

The low-level waste produced by nuclear power plants refers to the clothing, tools, and equipment that have been exposed to small amounts of radioactive material.  Low-level waste can be stored in the plant or it can be shipped to a disposal facility. Low-level waste does not present any real danger to the environment as long as it is disposed of properly.  As with high-level waste, proper storage is required.

 

Nuclear Power as Economically Efficient

 

Nuclear power is fairly cheap to produce, making it an attractive energy alternative.  Perhaps the biggest cost associated with nuclear power is plant construction.  Once a nuclear power plant has been built, the actual cost of nuclear power generation is fairly inexpensive.  This point is all the more important when you compare the cost of nuclear power with other clean energy sources such as solar or wind energy.  Solar and wind energy require large amounts of land as well as money. Also, since the technologies are not yet fully developed or widely used we don’t know the full extent of their effects.  In contrast, nuclear power plants have been in operation for some time, since the early 1940’s.  The first successful experiment with nuclear fission was conducted in 1938 in Germany.  Since then, research has been conducted to make nuclear power even safer then it already is – a very optimistic finding.

 

Another benefit to using nuclear power is that the resources needed to generate nuclear energy, namely uranium, are plentiful.  Although nuclear power is not considered a renewable energy source (RES) like solar or wind power, scientists estimate that global uranium supplies are unlikely to run-out for thousands of years.  Because uranium exists in such high quantities, nations do not have to worry about becoming overly dependent on a limited energy source.  Further, uranium supplies are fairly well spread out throughout the world, unlike world oil supplies that are largely located in specific geographic regions.

 

Finally, nuclear energy has the potential to reduce the energy gap between LDCs and EDCs.  Although the West currently uses a majority of the Earth’s energy, LDCs are quickly catching up to the West. As their use of technology and economies grow, their energy needs do as well.  In fact, research conducted by the United Nations Development Program shows that access to basic energy sources has the potential to lift countries out of poverty.   Nuclear energy expansion is one method that can be used by LDCs to catch up to EDCs in a clean, environmentally friendly way.

 

The Downside to Nuclear Energy:

 

There are two major downsides to nuclear power that need to be considered in this simulation.  First, if nuclear capabilities are used for the wrong purposes, nuclear weapons can be created.  Second, nuclear power plant malfunctions can be devastating, leading to the loss of life and environmental ruin.

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The fear of the spread of nuclear capabilities has been aggravated in recent years by nations trying to acquire the technology. For example, countries like North Korea and Iran have recently attempted to obtain nuclear weapons technology.  These actions are in violation of international law, namely the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The treaty, signed by 188 countries, prohibits any further proliferation of nuclear weapons.  Under the NPT, five countries (all members of the United Nations Security Council) are allowed to retain their existing nuclear weapons. Those nations are China, Russia, the UK, the USA, and France. These five countries have agreed not to transfer nuclear weapons to any other country and all nations who signed the treaty have agreed never to develop weapons technology.  Even so, in the very recent past, countries like North Korea have tried to build nuclear weapons technology for so-called defensive purposes.  When considering the option to expand nuclear power for civilian purposes, all countries need to be aware of this potential negative consequence. 

 

Aside from the danger of obtaining nuclear weapon materials, nuclear power plants in and of themselves represent potential threats.  That is, they need to be carefully guarded against any attempts at sabotage and takeover.  Although the risk of plant sabotage is fairly small, this is still a threat that needs to be evaluated.

 

Another downside to nuclear power is the possibility of a nuclear reactor malfunction, which would release nuclear radiation.  Two major incidents of nuclear plant malfunctions have occurred in the past thirty years - Three Mile Island (1979) and Chernobyl (1986).  In March 1979, Three Mile Island Nuclear Power Plant, located in Pennsylvania, US, suffered a partial core meltdown.  Although no lives were lost at Three Mile Island, the costly clean-up process created serious economic consequences for the entire region.  In April 1986, Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, located in Ukraine suffered a disastrous steam explosion, resulting in plant fire and eventual nuclear meltdown.  The meltdown produced a radioactive cloud that affected all of Europe.  Thirty people were killed in the accident and over 330,000 people had to be relocated.  Scientists estimate that over the next 70 years the Ukraine may see a 2% increase in cancer rates.  Further, the environmental damage caused by the Chernobyl accident was devastating.

 

World renewable energy in 2005 (except 2004 data for items marked* or **).Even though nuclear power plants claim that they have strong safety procedures, including multiple back up systems, accidents and mistakes are indeed possible.  Undoubtedly, there is a significant downside to nuclear power expansion. 

 

A Third Way

 

For some countries, the option between switching from fossil fuels to nuclear energy (or not) is not so black and white. Instead some countries support a middle way. In this sense, there is recognition that current fossil fuel consumption levels are too high, but there is no need to switch entirely to a dependence on nuclear energy (or any one type of clean energy alternative). Instead, some countries advocate the need for diversification. Simply put, some countries want to depend on many different types of energy: solar, wind, nuclear, and hydropower. One of the main reasons behind this idea is that dependence on any one type of energy source is dangerous. Instead, a mixture, or combination, of energy sources is viewed as more desirable and safe, especially because the long-term effects of certain alternative sources are still unknown.

 

It is your goal to formulate a plan to address the issue of alternative forms of energy. Is nuclear energy the most desirable form of alternative energy? Is a combination of approaches best? Should the world continue to rely on fossil fuels until the consequences of all alternative energy sources fully known? Your plan should be in line with your countries’ priorities and needs, but should also be one that addresses the potential problems and advantages of all alternative forms of energy. The discussion should include such topics as sustainable development, the improvement and use of alternative energy sources, the risks and rewards of nuclear energy, the energy gap between LDCs and EDCs, and the fairness of the current distribution of nuclear energy.