The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

Fossil fuels and nuclear reactions are great and they are amazing for producing commercial energy, but they also have an uglier side to them.

To start off with descriptions of good and bad, one can not mention nuclear reactions without elaborating on two very important factors. Radioactive waste, which is the undesired yet inevitable offspring of nuclear reactions. And of course, the possibility of a nuclear meltdown. There are two types of reactions that produce energy; fission and fusion. Fusion is currently not a major energy resource because it is nearly impossible to sustain the reaction long enough to gather energy but fission is used daily.

Such a nearly perfect system has one aforementioned crucial drawback that makes this resource inevitably improbably; waste (Other, more obvious drawbacks will be discussed later). When Uranium or Plutonium break apart they leave behind some undesirable waste in the form of radioactive isotopes. Radioactive decay and its very large half life is the real issue here, but maybe I can demonstrate it by using a simple analogy rather than give you another lesson in thermodynamics.

Image depicting half life of an element

If you are standing on a football field and decrease your distance to the end zone by one half, you become much closer to your destination. If you are 50 yards away, you move 25 yards closer to the end zone. If you repeat this action, you are only moving 12 and a half yards closer.

You could keep going and try to figure out where you would be after repeating this step many, many times but that would just be exhausting. The point is that you will never get to the end zone because you can always split the remainder in half. These radioactive isotopes have very long half lives. Some Plutonium isotopes that come out of this reaction have half lives of over 24,000 years.

Can you imagine how long it would take to get close to the end zone if it took that long to move half of your original distance? Too long. Especially when it is for a substance that emits radiation the entire time which can be harmful to living things.

The storage and care of this toxic waste is costly and not completely safe. For the most part, it is kept deep underground as to not contaminate the surrounding area. This is the downside of this clever method of manipulating energy.

Chernobyl was once a city that wanted to make an impact on the world around them by providing efficient and relatively cheap energy. Instead, they made an impact on the world around them by unintentionally hosting the site of one of the most devastating radioactive disasters in history.

This small city in northern Ukraine near the border of Belarus and Russia gained much attention as the site of the fated Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant meltdown. This meltdown resulted in the loss of just about 5% of the radiation in the reactor’s core into the area around it, but this small percentage was enough to cause death, contamination, and the spread of radiation to many nearby settlements. It is still considered unlivable today but has since been declared a tourist attraction.

As unfortunate an event as it was, Chernobyl can not be attributed to the current nuclear power plant concerns. It is simply an unfair comparison. Just because something bad happened in the past does not condemn an entire group based on similarities. It was specific and different in design from any other plant in existence. This inferior design coupled with the presence of many improperly trained personnel was the real cause of the meltdown.

An unfortunate 2 deaths occurred on that day and an even more horrifying 28 deaths followed due to ARS, also known as Acute Radiation Sickness. Such an influential incident has been noted and the proper precautions and safety measures have been made to other reactors around the world.

Nuclear plants and coal plants may have very similar designs but they contain a different set of concerns. Coal is burned to gain the heat energy to create steam from water and turn the main turbine. The power generated from coal provides about 40% of the entire planet’s electricity needs. That is nearly half of the energy needs met from one source alone. This percentage is estimated to decrease as time goes by. Such a decrease does not directly mean that we will use less coal. We will actually be using more than we currently do but the world’s use of energy is going to continue to jump every year. Subsequently, the coal use percentage will decrease, when in reality we will be using more.

Taken from WEC conducted survey (2013)

Coal power plants are classified as a fossil fuel energy source. A fossil fuel is a natural resource formed from remains of living organisms deep in the earth from which energy is derived through combustion. This classification is known to have their own set of drawbacks but the largest and most prevalent concern will always be CO2 emissions.

When using combustion for heat energy, there is a byproduct release of CO2 and other particulates into the atmosphere. This umbrella term also includes oil and natural gas, for which we have established many common uses in the world today.

I am sure that you may have heard a lot of concern about fossil fuels and the release of greenhouse gases but you may have been unclear as to why this is so bad for the environment. A greenhouse gas is basically just type of gas that can float around in our atmosphere and absorb infrared radiation from the sun.

These gases only make up roughly 1% of the atmosphere but they are very important. The earth’s atmosphere is a big bubble that holds in oxygen and heat to regulate. CO2 is effectively a poison that slowly creeps in and gives it a fever. These specific molecules bounce into others and slightly shift their not-so-stable form letting in this infrared heat radiation.

In the end, we have all of these light rays bouncing around in the air much longer than they should and increasing the earth’s base temperature. Therefore, global warming is a direct consequence to this process.

Let us set aside this growing concern to delve into a quick summation of how this has a daily impact. Decisions made throughout our worldwide economies are mostly made for/against specific financial outcomes. These may be very effective methods of harnessing energy but the setup is the often overlooked by investors and shareholders of these companies. What they see is a bottom line showing them net profit and projected profits for their companies; what they do not see is the constant drilling in the earth’s core and massive mining ventures for these products.

Murphy’s law dictates that anything that can go wrong, will go wrong. An elegant way of presenting the relativistic probability of a catastrophic event. Being bombarded by advertisements claiming to be 99% effective sound great but that is just a cleverly worded method of admitting to a 1% fault rate. Constant use and practices will eventually lead to that heavily feared 1%.

In a case of elevated oil rig drills in the Gulf or massive coal mining projects, there is always the inevitability of a severe spill or combustion. These do not just endanger the workers but the wildlife, ecosystem, and the general public as well.

We need to look at the road ahead of us and realize that it could become dangerous if we maintain course. Having said that, countries around the world are all slowly realizing that the new path we should be seeking is one of renewable energy and clean living. Renewable energy could be the golden ticket. I urge everyone to go out and learn more about these resources on your own to develop your own opinion and to spread the word in your own voice. To get you started, please watch this brief video describing the opportunities elsewhere and make the decision yourself.

Inherent risks of nuclear and fossil fuel based energy production can never be ignored. With all of these dangers surrounding us we must seek out other sources and develop safer, more reliable energy systems. Subsequently, a safer and more reliable world.

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