Saturday, March 21, 2009
I'm sure someone like Homer would tell you so, but nuclear waste does not look like glowing slime. It actually looks like dark grey metal (which is spent Uranium fuel) held in large concrete canisters. I am currently taking an introductory course in Nuclear Engineering (MAAE 4906) and I recently went to the Canadian Nuclear Association conference in February. These are the sources of my information.
So what’s the relation between the amount of nuclear waste and the amount of electricity produced? Eight thumb-size pellets of Uranium fuel can power an average home for a year. I always found it interesting to compare these 8 pellets of used fuel to the total amount of garbage the average home creates in a year. There’s definitely a lot more garbage! But how much harm does garbage cause and how much does nuclear waste cause? Well they both take up space and that has always been an issue. Also, a lot of garbage is not biodegradable and nuclear waste will take a long time to decay as well. But the upside is that nuclear waste is stored and monitored in carefully managed facilities, and in the 46 years of using nuclear energy in Canada, no member of the public was harmed because of it.
Let’s leave it at that for now in terms of waste management, but I do want to mention that I should look more into the harmful effects of mining Uranium. Let’s hope they start coming up with ways to mine Uranium while minimally affecting humans and the environment.
Nuclear reactor plants do not release greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to global warming. For example, electricity generated from nuclear reactors in Canada avoids 650 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions per year, a total of 2.3 billion tons so far. Nuclear energy is in fact clean energy.
Nuclear power produces 15.2% of global electricity generation and is the fourth largest source of electricity in the world. Nuclear power accounts for 51% of the electricity production in Ontario, and 14.6% of the electricity produced in Canada. So as you can see, the world depends heavily on nuclear as a source of energy.
As it stands right now, nuclear is the way to go. Due to growth of demand and aging nuclear plants, by 2020 Ontario will need to replace 80% of its electricity generation. What will we replace it with? Solar panels? Wind turbines? Those alternatives are just not enough to keep up with demand. For example, one fuel pellet (the size of a thumb) supplies as much electricity as four wind turbines. Think of the difference in terms of land needed, cost to build, noisiness, etc… As for solar panels, they’re just much too expensive right now.
Let’s hope that new scientific discoveries will lead to breakthroughs in sustainable, renewable, and clean energy sources. If you consider that the sun provides 6,000 times the energy needed to power the globe, I have my fingers crossed for solar energy.