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Some Factors Affecting the Nuclear Power Industry

The nuclear power industry has unfolded an interestingly controversial history since the initial discovery of radioactivity and nuclear reactions by Nobel prize winner Italian physicist Enrico Fermin in 1938. By 1945 the first controlled atomic bomb explosion, the Trinity Test was witnessed in Alamogordo New Mexico. During World War ll the power of the atomic bomb was instrumental in bringing an end to the war, even while the destruction and ill effects on humans still haunt Japan and the whole world to this day.

That searingly severe experience seen by the world inspired then President Eisenhower to make a speech in 1953 at the United Nations general assembly for countries to start using the newly realized awesome power of nuclear energy for peace. Thereafter, the first submarine powered by nuclear energy was launched in 1954, the first nuclear plant generating electricity was built in Pennsylvania in 1957, and in 1961 the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise powered by 8 nuclear reactors was commissioned.

Aside from power generation, medicine and scientific research also benefitted from advances in the nuclear sciences. Today almost 16% of the world’s energy comes from nuclear sources. Worldwide there are 439 power plants in 30 countries supplying 372000 Megawatts of energy per year. There are 103 nuclear reactors in 31 states in the US supplying 20% of energy needs. (Ritch )No new plants have gone up in the US in the last 26 years. However in the last 2 years there has been increasing interest and support of the nuclear power industry, instigating concern from many sectors.

The controversial discussions continue in the US , and in some countries such as Sweden for example, the phase out of nuclear powered reactors has started. The effects of some factors important to the industry are discussed. By the year 1979 the Three Mile Island reactor accident, the worst in US history, has stamped a very negative image on the industry. Though no deaths were reported, the partial meltdown caused by a fault in the cooling system which failed to work, brought to the fore the risks inherent in nuclear reactors.

In 1986 a much worse catastrophe in Chernobyl Russia where radiation spread uncontrolled through a large area and more than 60 people died and continue to die ( as of 2004 ) signaled the start of the end of the nuclear plants, at least in the USA. It was in 1996 when the last nuclear reactor was built in the US at Tennessee valley. Although no such major incidents have happened again so far, the industry has been on rapid decline in the last ten years.

That is, until President Bush , with congressional backing, signed into law the Energy Act of 2005 allowing up to $13 bio in tax incentives and tax breaks plus relaxed regulatory procedures and assistance for liabilities for businesses engaging in nuclear power. The US government believes that renewable sources such as wind and solar energy development have to be supplemented with a more constant, reliable source to counteract fluctuations in wind currents or the sun’s availability.

Since then, there appeared a huge lobby group out to resurrect the industry in the light of global warming concerns. By December 2005 the first approval of a nuclear power design was issued in the US. On the other hand there was great resistance from the environmentalists and the green groups including those against mining (uranium supply is largely mined) and against nuclear power plants in general. They pointed out the unnecessary hazards and risks in case of nuclear accidents, citing the Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and lesser known Tokai mura incident in Japan.

They also mentioned susceptibility of such plants to terrorist attacks, earthquakes, and natural calamities, plus they argued that though nuclear reactors cut greenhouse gas emissions compared to fossil fuel powered plants, taking the entire life cycle approach, specifically the mining part, nuclear power supply is not really that green. Some quarters argued too that supply of the main raw material, uranium, is non renewable and might not last. The actual situation is that supplies of uranium used in half of current nuclear reactors in the US are coming from decommissioned Russian warheads.

This is part of the agreement signed between US and the Russian states to ensure that nuclear fuel such as uranium or plutonium in nuclear weapons are converted to non war uses. The agreement to furnish this supply will end soon in 2013. The rest of uranium is obtained by mining , with Canada producing 25 % of the world’s supply. Although the mines are a non renewable resource, a kg of uranium can furnish 12000 times more energy than the same amount of coal, so supply for the industry’s needs is not a major concern, unlike the concern for the more finite fossil fuels.

In addition, fluctuations in price of uranium have very little effect on cost of electricity generated since only a small amount of the material is needed. Canada, Australia and Kazakstan the main producers of uranium all report under utilized supply capacity to date. ( Ritch)The US can also explore the wastes from their own unused warheads as additional source, or even revive uranium mining in case the demand increases. Supply of uranium, the most important material for the nuclear power industry is not considered a problem for the near and far future. .

There is also concern for the supply of skilled and licensed workers such as welders or construction workers who will be needed once the nuclear reactors start to be built. Then there should be technically trained staff to man the projected 15 new reactors to be built until end 2008 and possibly more afterwards. Government has given support to universities and training centers to fasttrack training needs. The lack of accredited local contract suppliers in the US may also be a problem, so many equipment and materials may have to be sourced from abroad but again, this will not be a major problem.

Those against nuclear powered plants say that waste management and decommissioning at end of life of the plant is added cost burden compared to plants using fossil fuel and renewable energy sources. The truth is that more than 90 reactors, 250 research reactors and 100 mines have reached their end of life to date and had been dismantled according to strict technical and government regulatory procedures without additional costs.

Currently, extraneous costs such as those spent for storage, waste treatment ( radioactive waste is never disposed of, but treated, mainly by heavy duty containment or storage on site) , and decommissioning are already all built in within the cost of electricity generated during the lifetime of the reactor. All these expenses account to only a small percentage of the total cost. In the USA for example, 0. 1 to 0. 2 cents per kW are being collected from users’ fees for subsequent decommissioning expenses.

Generated wastes volume that have to be stored have been estimated to come up to 52,000 tons in total and suitable , safe and secure areas have been appropriated for this need. Taking all factors in consideration ( except capital costs) the price of electricity from nuclear sources is competitive and can even be lower that from coal or oil powered plants( Ritch ). Conclusion Matters related to supply of uranium source , equipment, workers, manufacturing capacity, storage, treatment and disposal of wastes, and plant decommissioning are all very relevant to the nuclear power industry.

In the US and other countries however, there are no major problems on these items since technology updates, regulatory controls, economic instruments, and lately, the Energy Act of 2005 , all help to keep electricity generation costs low and the manufacturing environment and surrounding communities safe. All these support the resurgence of nuclear power in the US. No matter if the environmentalists cry foul citing its risks, hazards, high capital expense, “not really green” , “ will take away subsidies from renewable energy sources” and other unfounded claims, the reality is that the return of the nuclear power industry is upon the US.

Works Cited

Guinnessy, Paul. “ Stronger Future for Nuclear Power”. 2006. Physics Today Feb 2006 p19 http://www. physicstoday. org/vol-59/iss-2/p19. html Ritch, John, Dir Gen. “Mining and the Uranium Market” 2007. US Nuclear Power Industry World Nuclear Organization. Oct 2007. http://www. worldnuclear. org/info/info. html#mining Weber, John. “The Nuclear Power Industry is Desperate” 2007. New West Politics. Mar 07 http://www. newwest. net/topic/article/the_nuclearpower_industry_is-desperate/37/137

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