How Does Nuclear Energy Compare With Wind and Solar?

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The world is facing a looming energy crisis as first world and developing countries both compete for energy resources for power generation. There are divisions between the coal mining and uranium mining sectors along with coal fired and gas power generators and environmentalists as to which direction the world should be heading. Read on for an analysis of all the different options.

Firstly, what is the current division of energy supply generation across developed and developing economies? If we take the January 2011 figures, United States of America power is generated in the following ways:

44.8 per cent from coal-fired power stations
24.2 per cent from natural gas-fired power stations
19.4 per cent from nuclear power stations
0.9 per cent from petroleum-fired power stations
6.2 per cent from hydroelectric power stations
4.2 per cent from renewable sources such as biomass, solar, wind and geothermal and various miscellaneous energy sources.

The most recent figures I can find on France are:

Nuclear 40 per cent
Oil 33 per cent
Gas 14 per cent
Renewables 6 per cent
Solid fuels 5 per cent
Other 2 per cent

The figures for China for 2008 are:

71 per cent from coal-fired power stations
19 per cent from oil-fired power stations
6 per cent from hydroelectric power stations
3 per cent from natural gas
1 per cent from nuclear power stations
0.2 per cent from other renewable

Why fear nuclear power as an alternative to coal? This question can probably best be answered by looking at the nuclear industry as a whole. People once regarded nuclear weapons as essential for avoiding a third world war between the then Soviet Union/Eastern Bloc and the United States and its allies. Now the general leaning is towards nuclear disarmament.

Then there is the issue of nuclear waste disposal. Depending on who you listen to this is either not an impossible problem or it is a problem with no solution. Those experts who believe there is no real waste disposal problem would argue that nuclear waste can be safely stored in synroc in a waste dump in large areas of desert in countries such as Australia. Synroc is a form of artificial or ceramic rock (developed in Australia) and considered a proven technology in many quarters. Others claim this is no solution and the radioactivity will ultimately leak into soil and ground water.

Sceptics also focus on two accidents: Three Mile Island in the United States in 1979, and Chernobyl in the Ukraine, then part of the former Soviet Union in 1986. In the case of Three Mile Island, a problem resulting in a cooling malfunction caused part of the reactor core to melt in the number 2 reactor. While an amount of radioactive gas was released, no injuries or serious health effects have ever been reported. The gas released resulted in no worse than normal background levels of radioactivity. In other words, the design of the reactor was sufficiently good to prevent a disaster.

In the case of Chernobyl, the reactor design was substandard and would not have passed required standards in the United States, France, the United Kingdom or any western country with a nuclear energy program. Moreover, the personnel operating the reactor had not been trained to minimum standards required in the west. Nevertheless, the confirmed death toll starting at 30 people, increased to a total of around 90 direct and indirect deaths from the reactor meltdown in the days and weeks after the disaster. While tragic, this was remarkably small for such a disaster, which after all, was a result of unacceptably bad safety standards.

The great thing in favor of nuclear energy is that it is clean in power generation and can generate very large amounts of power and at a competitive price over time. Although in the interim, significant subsidies will be required by government to make nuclear energy competitive. Renewable energy, in the case of wind and solar, is captive to the wind or sun and as a result is very unreliable and at this stage next to useless for base load power generation.

While coal, in particular, is a cheap way to generate high levels of base load power, it is also very polluting and creates large amounts of carbon dioxide gases in the atmosphere. Cleaner coal-fired power plants are now being developed but carbon dioxide capture and storage is still far from proven as a technology.

Hydroelectricity is emissions free but environmentalists oppose it on the basis of damaging the environment by damming rivers. The other shortcoming of hydro power is that it is reliant on dams remaining at high levels or its use for power generation is greatly reduced.

The other options are mainly gas, natural or coal seam, and oil-fired power generation. Obviously, the problem with gas is that natural gas is non-renewable, although it has low emissions, while coal seam gas and oil are high emission and non-renewable ways of generating power.

Geothermal shows some promise and is being used in a limited way in the United States for power generation. However, there are some significant problems to overcome with geothermal such as the limited and secluded nature of many geothermal geological locations. Many of these geothermal sites are in isolated desert regions well away from major cities. As a result, connecting infrastructure to geothermal power plants could work out as very expensive longer term.

One outstanding issue which is essential to first world economic status is availability of cheap power. Without cheap power, industry will move off shore, the elderly and the poor will not be able to afford to heat or cool their homes and first world countries will find themselves returning to the status of developing world economies very quickly. These issues must be taken seriously before wide scale adoption of unreliable and inefficient renewable energy is used as an alternative to non-renewable coal, gas, oil, nuclear or hydro power.

I have a background in business as well as having worked for a boss in various employment from politics to the civil service. I am currently involved in a consultancy where I advise on business start-ups in the renewable energy and building sectors.

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