Nuclear power is a controversial and hotly debated renewable energy source.
On one hand, it is the promise of reliable non-polluting energy. One the other, there are the risks of radiation leaks, hazards of mining uranium, and the high costs of disposing of nuclear.
The added fears that nuclear materials from these power plants could be used to create nuclear weapons create a complex story that is far from black-and-white.
Nuclear power stations generate electricity by using the heat generated through the process of nuclear fission. Fission is the process by which the nucleus of a radioactive element, commonly uranium is split by a neutron. This starts a chain reaction that splits more uranium atoms. Each time an atom is split it releases neutrons that can split even more uranium atoms. This reaction is controlled in the reactor core where there are measures in place to prevent a meltdown, or an overheating of the core.
The heat from these reactions are often used to heat water and this heated water is used to power turbines which in turn generates electricity.
A major disadvantage is that waste from nuclear power stations remains dangerously radioactive for thousands of years. Some countries plan to bury their stockpiles of radioactive waste deep inside the earth, after first encasing it a glass-like material to prevent radiation from leaking out.
Public concern about the safety of nuclear power grew after major accidents at nuclear power stations in 1979 at Three Mile Island, United States, 1986 at Chernobyl in the Soviet Union (present-day Ukraine) and 2011 at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan following the combined earthquake and tsunami.
In the areas of radiation leaks, there is often a noticeable increase in cancer and birth defect rates. There are also harmful effects on the local plants and animal populations with observable genetic mutations and decreased fertility.
These events led some countries to ban or never to start nuclear power schemes. Following the Fukushima disaster, German Chancellor Angela Merkel announced that all German nuclear power plants will close by 2022. Currently, a number of countries have declared that they do not plan on using nuclear power and other countries have declared that they will be phasing them out.
Nuclear technology has improved since those disasters and modern reactors have more effective safety features. While the risk of an accident at a nuclear power station is low, the consequences of an accident could be extremely high.
The risk of accidents and the fact that aging reactors must be upgraded or decommissioned – both at high cost – to ensure their safety, has led many calls for nuclear power to be abandoned.
At the same time, there is growing acceptance that nuclear power is a clean source of energy that can help mitigate climate change as it produces no greenhouse gas emissions.
In 2007, 14% of the world’s electricity was generated by nuclear power stations operating in 31 countries. About 85% of the world’s installed nuclear capacity is in industrialized nations that are members of the OECD Nuclear Energy Agency.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) expects 10 to 25 new countries to bring their first nuclear power plants on-line by 2030.
But as more countries move to develop nuclear power, there are growing concerns about the risk that nuclear materials could be used to create weapons.
Iran’s efforts to develop a nuclear program are seen as a veiled attempt for nuclear weapons (see this SciDev.Net editorial). Some commentators, as in this MIT Technology Review article, say sanctions designed to prevent the proliferation of weapons are stopping poorer nations from using nuclear power.
ALTERNATIVES / SOLUTIONS
In 1989, the World Association of Nuclear Operators was created to improve safety at every nuclear power plant in the world.
Nuclear power is indeed becoming safer with enhanced precautions and procedures, better staff training and new systems that are not prone to mechanical or human error.
New types of reactors are also being developed to be safer producers of energy. For example, small nuclear reactors are touted as viable methods of using nuclear power safely due to its smaller size.
A theoretically safer alternative to the nuclear fission used today is nuclear fusion, but this technology is still being developed.
To reduce the threat that nuclear materials could be turned into weapons, the US government created the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP) which is now known as the International Framework for Nuclear Energy Cooperation (IFNEC). IFNEC now has over 30 partner countries and even more observers and candidate members.
The IFNEC aims to stop nuclear material falling into the wrong hands by closing the cycle between nations that operate nuclear power plants, and those that supply them with enriched uranium fuel and take back spent fuel.
Critics say the scheme will entrench differences between nations according to their technical capabilities.
A major source of more information is the International Atomic Energy Agency. This is a global body with 151 member states that promotes peaceful use of atomic energy around the world.
The IAEA advises governments that are thinking of starting a nuclear program, and conducts safety assessments and training for nuclear engineers and scientists in member states.
The agency’s website has a comprehensive area for journalists, with press releases, free images and publications.
Nuclear power is a controversial topic that arouses heated debate. Journalists who report on this subject need to be aware of the hidden agendas of vested interests.
On one hand, some organizations have made exaggerated claims about the dangers of nuclear power. One the other, those with a financial interest in nuclear power have played down the safety concerns because acting on them would be costly.
The nations and corporations that currently have the know-how may promote it to other countries for economic or political reasons rather than a real commitment to meet the needs of developing countries.
As nuclear power becomes increasingly attractive as a tool in the fight against climate change, there is a growing debate about whether it should be included in the Clean Development Mechanism, under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change’s Kyoto Protocol.
Journalists covering debates about possible nuclear power plants can follow public interest angles by asking about safety issues, including evacuation plans and what stockpiles of antidotes for radiation poisoning exist. Plans for siting nuclear power stations and dealing with the nuclear waste are also important to investigate.
When reporting on costs of nuclear power, journalists should look beyond the initial infrastructure costs and consider the necessary payments for upgrades and for decommissioning old power plants. Many nuclear power plants built in the United States in 1970s and 1980s have been abandoned because of high costs.
Other sources of information include World Nuclear News (which also has a free email-based news service).
For advice on reporting on a nuclear accident, see Reporting on Disasters.