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Nuclear Power as an Alternative to Coal

Michael D. Schmitz

Thesis Statement: Energy from fission has rendered the primitive technique of
burning coal obsolete.
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Nuclear Power as an Alternative to Coal

The inexpensive power stored in coal raised the United States to the top

of the world. According to CARE, an organization in advocate of coal energy,

the abundance of coal in the U.S. could continue to fuel the country for

centuries as it has since the industrial revolution (“Abundant Supply”).

However, despite its bountiful supply, should coal continue to be the major

source of U.S. power? Coal has been a source of energy in the United States for

more than 250 years, and substantial progression to a more efficient power

source is long overdue. Advancement became possible when scientists

developed a new source of voltage, nuclear power. This technique consists of

tapping into the wealth of energy stored in the nuclei of atoms. When unstable

atoms, such as a uranium isotope, the primary fuel for nuclear power reactions,

are bombarded with neutrons, they split and release their encased energy,

which can be redistributed throughout the electrical grid. This process is less

polluting, less dangerous, and rivals coal in expense. Energy from fission has

rendered the primitive technique of burning coal obsolete.

However, some people oppose the use of nuclear power. The Anti-

Nuclear Alliance of Western Australia declares “there is no safe dose

of...radiation” (“No Safe Dose ”). They claim that any level of radiation has a

negative effect and that humankind should minimize radiation levels as much

as possible. In other words, the alliance believes that no radiation should be

added to the levels naturally present (“No Safe Dose ”). Although this is a
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widespread opinion, evidence has disproved the supposition. Dr. Roger Bate,

co- founder of the Science and Environment Forum and writer for the Tech

Central Station , cites experiments that show the human body withstanding

small doses of radiation without harm, and he even suggests that radiation may

even be beneficial because it stimulates the body’s defenses (Bate). Even

though research states otherwise, many people erroneously believe that all

radiation is harmful and therefore conclude that nuclear energy is a threat.

Even if small quantities of radiation had adverse effects, nuclear plants

still would emit only insignificant amounts. Numerous places have naturally

higher radiation than the post- meltdown vicinity of Chernobyl (Bate).

Presenting the triviality of radiation from nuclear power, Dr. Cohen, a physics

professor emeritus, states that “the genetic risks of nuclear power are

equivalent to… men wearing pants an extra eight hours per year” because the

gonads are warmed, encouraging mutations (Cohen). These data clearly

support that nuclear plant radiation is inconsequential to the average person.

Because of the widespread fear of radiation injuries, the restrictions on

radioactive emissions in the United States are cautious. The extraneous

precautions are illustrated in an article from the Ayn Rand Institute written by a

nuclear physics PhD candidate. The article proclaims, “… the radiation levels in

Washington [state]’s Capitol building (due to uranium in the granite walls)

would legally prevent the structure from being licensed as a nuclear power

plant” (Norsen). Few Washingtonians worry excessively about their legislature’s

health. If members of the legislature are at more risk from radiation than

workers in nuclear power plants, nuclear power must be a very safe science.
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In contrast, the crude technique of burning coal exhales ton after ton of

hazardous refuse. Coal leaves millions of times more waste than fission.

According to Charles Wharton, a physics researcher, a state of the art three

hundred and fifty megawatt plant in Milliken, New York releases eighteen

thousand tons of sulfuric acid, seven thousand tons of nitric acid, and three

and a half million tons of carbon dioxide each year. These gases are devastating

to the earth as well as humanity. For example, the unbounded coal emissions

from a plant in Massachusetts cause about one hundred and sixty premature

deaths, one thousand seven hundred emergency respiratory ailments, and

forty- three thousand asthma attacks (Wharton). In addition to the human

ailments, the carbon dioxide emissions threaten to destabilize the equilibrium

of nature by warming the earth. Other pollutants from coal contribute to acid

rain. The pollution of coal is so immense that Dr. Cohen is able to declare “…

there would have to be 25 melt- downs each year for nuclear power to be as

dangerous as coal burning”. A process that desecrates life and the earth to the

extent coal does should not be used as a power source.

Similarly, the disparity between the solid wastes of nuclear and coal

power is also colossal. The Milliken coal plant yields ten thousand tons of waste

every year; whereas a nuclear plant of similar size would only leave a few

compact tons of refuse every five years (Wharton). Coal leaves so much waste

because it is an impure resource, making it necessary to burn large quantities

to produce adequate energy. The nuclear process, on the other hand, is not

based on combustion. When fissile molecules are split they do not release

gaseous impurities, and each molecule of uranium releases many times more
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energy than a molecule of coal. Nuclear waste can also be reprocessed more

than coal ash, further reducing solid wastes. The American Nuclear Society, an

organization aimed at advancing atomic sciences, contends that over ninety

percent of nuclear waste can be recycled back into new reactor fuel or into

isotopes useful in research and medicine (“Questions & Answers”; Wharton).

Despite the small volume of refuse, the U.S. has had troubles storing nuclear

waste, but if reprocessing were fully supported, U.S. plants would have enough

space to capacitate its own waste (“Questions & Answers ”). While nuclear

waste is stored securely and compactly, coal ash is dispersed into the biosphere

and poured into landfills across the country. Many people would argue that

nuclear refuse is still more dangerous because they know it is a source of

radioactivity, but the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, a U.S. research center

focusing on environmental and national security issues, asserts the commonly

unknown fact that coal also contains traces of radioactive isotopes. While the

radiation levels are not as dangerous as those in nuclear waste, they are

scattered through landfills and expose the public to more damage than the

securely disposed nuclear wastes (US. Oak Ridge Natl. Lab.). Coal power, in

releasing three and a half million times more waste, is not nearly as efficient as

the splitting of nuclei (“Questions & Answers”).

Another major contributor to anti- nuclear activism is the Chernobyl

meltdown. During the reign of the Soviet Union, the first nuclear meltdown

occurred. The media proclaimed a catastrophe and scarred the nuclear

industry. The British Daily Mail ’s front page read “2000 DEAD” and the New

York Post announced that fifteen thousand bodies were bulldozed into nuclear
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waste pits. The Natural Resources Defense Council prophesized that over a

hundred thousand cancers would develop (Bate). The pandemonium was

fueled by the widespread belief that any amount of radiation is dangerous, the

nuclear paranoia that the Cold War and Hiroshima inspired, and the Soviet

Union’s reluctance to release facts. Needless to say, predictions far overshot

effects. The World Nuclear Association, an organization which promotes the

peaceful use of nuclear power, affirms that the meltdown directly killed only

thirty people. Lighter radiation scattered across the Ukraine and drifted

through Scandinavia, but studies show that the spread was insignificant.

Greater problems existed in the immediate area which had to be evacuated and

cleaned, but even the local radiation lacked catastrophic effects. As of now, the

only clear health danger cited by the World Health Organization was an

estimated increase of seven hundred thyroid cancers. Of this escalation, there

were ten deaths (“Chernobyl”). The figures relating the liberated radiation to

deaths were seriously overplayed, and the fear of fusion that Chernobyl

inspired was without foundation. The disease effects of the propagated

particles were nearly void.

Still, despite the relatively minor effects of the world’s greatest meltdown

had on health, nobody wants U.S. power sources to rupture and bombard

citizens with radiation. Even if a meltdown is not a major health detriment, a

single death is still unacceptable. Also, a nuclear accident would be an

economic disaster. The site and surrounding area would have to be cleaned

and many residents would have to be evacuated for years (“Chernobyl”). A

word of encouragement is that the United States has never built a plant as
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dangerous as Chernobyl. The Soviet mindset was centered on production, and

the sickle of the Union was willing to recklessly pressure technology to its

extremes in order to reap every last morsel of output. Soviet efficiency did not

encompass safety, but the U.S. disposition is quite different. Due to safety

concerns, it took the cautious U.S. seven years to restart the brother reactors of

the Three Mile Island Unit 2 after a meltdown in which all the radiation was

successfully contained by the containment structure. In contrast, the USSR had

other Chernobyl reactors running again in mere weeks. They were restarted

even though the Chernobyl reactor lacked a containment structure – now a

violation of law in nearly every country of the world – and the area was polluted

with radiation. Studies have shown that U.S. containment structures would

have successfully restrained Chernobyl’s releases (“Questions & Answers”).

Additionally, at the time of the meltdown, Chernobyl was being run at

extremely unstable conditions to see how long the turbines would run if the

main power were cut (“Chernobyl”). Seven automatic safety systems were

disabled, any of which, according to the American Nuclear Society, would have

prevented the accident. U.S. safety regulations disallow such an unstable

environment to exist in a commercial reactor (“Questions & Answers”). As a

result of America’s caution, an accident of Chernobyl’s magnitude is nearly

impossible within U.S. borders.

As with everything, the benefits of nuclear power come with a price. The

Uranium Information Center, an organization dedicated to increase the

Australian education of nuclear power, expresses that although nuclear power

costs nearly a tenth the price of coal, large sums must be spent to ensure its
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safety (“The Economics of”). In many European countries nuclear energy is

more affordable than coal power, but coal is incredibly abundant in the United

States. Because of the plentiful supply, coal power remains cheap despite the

thousands of tons that must be processed each day to supply America’s power

(Wharton). However, while additional fees to clean up coal waste may amass,

nuclear power’s price is not expected to increase. Another benefit of nuclear

power is that if the cost of fissile uranium rises, the overall cost would not

significantly alter (“The Economics of”). In contrast, the price of coal fuel is

about one- third the overall cost of coal power. If coal were to become scarce,

prices would skyrocket. In any case, it is inevitable that the world supply of

both coal and uranium will eventually be depleted. According to CARE, an

organization which advocates coal power, the States have two hundred and

fifty years worth of recoverable coal resource, and the World Nuclear

Association declares that the world has an equal amount of uranium from

conventional (mined) sources (“Abundant Supply”; “Supply of Uranium”).

However, the developing technology of breeder reactors could extend the

length of the uranium supply sixty-fold, and other energy sources such as sea

water extracts, nuclear weapons, and thorium fuel could increase nuclear

power’s life indefinitely. Because of the longevity of nuclear energy, future

competitive costs are guaranteed (“Supply of Uranium”). Coal may be currently

cheaper, but fission will long outlive its inferior counterpart.

Igniting fuels has provided mankind with warmth since the invention of

fire. However, it is time for humanity to advance and harvest the benefits of a

greater force of nature. Coal, currently America’s most prominent energy

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resource, is an inefficient fuel. As the world population continues to grow

exponentially, the hazards of coal waste will increase to unacceptable amounts.

Fortunately, scientists have discovered a safer and more efficient method of

obtaining energy. They have discovered techniques to harvest the power of the

atom, the fundamental structure of the universe. If nuclear energy does not

replace the archaic procedure of coal combustion, the planet will sustain

irreparable damage. Nuclear power is an incredible invention and is the answer

to preventing humanity from desolating its home: Earth.

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Works Cited

“Abundant Supply.” CARE. 2002. Coalition for Affordable and Reliable Energy.

June 2002. <http:/ / / powering_life/abundant.asp>.

Bate, Roger. “Chernobyl’s Real Victims…” 24 January 2002.

Tech Central Station. 29 October 2002.

<http:/ / /012402A.html>.

“Chernobyl.” Mar. 2001. World Nuclear Association. June 2002.

<http:/ / >.

Cohen, Bernard L. “Risks of Nuclear Power.” Radiation Information Network .

28 June 2002. Idaho State University, Health Physics Program.

16 Sept. 2002. <http:/ / risk.htm>.

Norsen, Travis. “The Enemies of Nuclear Power.” Ayn Rand Institute .

3 Aug. 2001. Ayn Rand Institute. 16 Sept. 2002.

<http:/ />.

“No Safe Dose…” ANAWA. Anti-Nuclear Alliance of Western Australia.

8 Oct. 2002. < health/ nosafedose.html>.

Questions & Answers. University of Missouri- Rolla, American Nuclear Society.

16 Sept. 2002. <http:/ / /~ans /QA.html>.

“Supply of Uranium.” Aug. 2002. World Nuclear Association. 14 Oct. 2002.

<http:/ / >.

“The Economics of Nuclear Power.” Uranium Information Centre . June 2002.

Uranium Information Centre. 14 Oct. 2002.

<http:/ / / nip08.htm>.

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United States. Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Gabbard, Alex.

“Coal Combustion: Nuclear Resource or Danger.” 14 October 2002.

<http:/ / 34/text/colmain.html>.

Wharton, Charles. “The Advantages of Nuclear vs. Coal Power.”

The Ithaca Journal . 2 Feb. 2002. 16 Sept. 2002

<http:/ / / news /stories/20020202/opinion/15746