Fossil Fuel vs. Nuclear Energy
March 3, 2017
Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2017
|Fig. 1: Wet storage/dry casket, as of 31 Dec 11, metric tons of uranium (MTU). (Source: G. Lewis, after Werner. )|
Energy is essential to supporting human life on planet earth. Human beings have populated the entire planet and rely on the burning of coal to perform daily activities such as turning on lights, heating showers, and using a simple microwave. Our heavy reliance on energy has put our planet at risk due to high emissions of carbon dioxide that are released through the burning of fossil fuels. As humans have become more aware of the consequences of burning fossil fuels for energy, there has been a push for a more sustainable energy source. Nuclear energy seems to be the answer. But is using nuclear energy for electricity really more sustainable than burning fossil fuels? Are carbon dioxide emissions worse than nuclear waste? In this essay we will compare the two and attempt to answer this question.
Consequences of Increased Carbon Dioxide
As of 2007, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was 379 ppm and has continued to rise since. Before the industrial revolution, the concentration of carbon dioxide was around 280 ppm.  This increased concentration of a greenhouse gas such as carbon dioxide holds an immediate threat to human beings. More carbon dioxide means more heat is trapped around our planet. Increased heat holds many consequences. Not only is it the reason for a rising sea level, the acidity of the ocean has also increased with the higher concentration of carbon dioxide within the atmosphere. More carbon dioxide gets absorbed into the ocean which forms more carbonic acid which then decreases the pH of the ocean. The higher acidity hurts the life of many aquatic organisms including coral reef. Increasing global temperatures play a huge roll in terrestrial ecology. An example of this is the Hawaiian Honeycreeper. This endangered bird species avoids avian malaria by living at elevation above 4,500 feet, where the temperature does not drop below 17 degrees celsius.  As global temperatures rise, the habitat for these once prosperous native Hawaiian birds will continue to shrink and they will eventually go extinct. All in all, climate change is driven by the emitting of carbon dioxide which is the product of burning fossil fuels. Climate change is a threat to the ecology of both terrestrial and oceanic species.
Dangers of Nuclear Waste
In 2006 it was estimated that around 8910 tons of heavy metal nuclear waste was generated around the world.  Nuclear waste is radioactive and dangerous to any organisms in proximity to it. However, great technological strides have been made in order to control and trap the nuclear waste in order to avoid health hazards to both human beings and the environment. High level radioactive waste is mainly uranium fuel that is both hot and highly radioactive.  In the U.S, the nuclear waste is stored in spent fuel pools which are giant barrels up to 40 feet deep.  These pools are made with reinforced concrete that is several feet thick and with reinforced steel liners.  However, holding on to nuclear was is risky in the fact that any leakage will be deadly to many living organisms. As you can see from the image on the right, the United States carries a very large amount of nuclear waste. There have been many horror stories of leaked nuclear waste and nuclear waste holding sites are far from perfect. In New Mexico in 2014, a mysterious leak exposed 17 employees at a nuclear power plant to high levels of radiation.  These nuclear waste holding sites are meant to be temporary, however there are still no facilities for permanent high level radioactive waste. 
In today's modern society, human beings need fuel. Fuel comes in many shapes and forms but in the past century, nearly all of it is from fossil fuels. These fossil fuels emit carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and result in an increasing global climate. More recently, nuclear energy has come into the picture. Burning of nuclear energy releases zero carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. However, the byproduct is extremely dangerous and must be contained. As of right now, both have their pros and cons. Safe, permanent, disposal of high level nuclear waste must be achieved in order to push our world away from fossil fuel reliance. Until then, human beings will continue to burn fossil fuels and damage the world we live in. As of now, both pose a high risk to the environment, but nuclear energy has a lot more room for improvement.
© Geoffrey Lewis. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.
 Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis - Contribution of Working Group I to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (Cambridge University Press, 2007).
 E. A. VanderWerf, "Hawaiian Bird Conservation Action Plan," Pacific Rim Conservation, October 2012.
 "Nuclear Waste," Social and Spatial Inequalities Group, 2006.
 "Radioactive Waste," U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, April 2015.
 D. Frosch, "A Livelihood in Nuclear Waste, Under Threat," New York Times, 20 Mar 14.
 J. D. Werner, "U.S. Spent Nuclear Fuel Storage," Congressional Research Service, R42513, May 2012.
Replacement Of Fossil Fuels With Nuclear Energy For Electricity
Replacement of Fossil Fuels with Nuclear Energy for Electricity
Our nation is on the brink of an energy crisis and alternative means to produce
electricity must be found. Fossil fuel resources are declining sharply and nuclear energy
is the leading form of replacement. Our research shows that the advantages to this new
energy source are extraordinary and that there are many ways to minimize its negative
aspects. Due to the overwhelming advantages, we have concluded that nuclear energy is
indeed the best solution to the nation's energy crisis and with more advanced research
and technology any future problems can be solved.
The effects on the United States would be enormous if nuclear energy was to
completely replace fossil fuels in the production of electricity. With fossil fuel resources
disappearing quicker than can be produced, our nation is entering a serious energy crisis.
However the future may not be too bleak since many studies have come out on the
advantages of nuclear energy. The Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) has undertaken an
immense amount of research and produced many studies on the benefits of nuclear
energy and its ability to produce the electricity necessary for the United States. Studies on
the safety of transportation, benefits of radiation, reliability and economic uses of nuclear
energy, and benefits for the environment have proved repeatedly the need for the
replacement of fossil fuels. Despite all advantages, only 20% of the nation?s electricity is
derived from nuclear energy. The United States has cancelled over one hundred nuclear
reactors and no new ones have been ordered into construction since 1970. The reasons for
these alarming numbers are unclear when developed nations such as France and Belgium
use 77% and 60% nuclear energy, respectively. While the advantages are clearly seen
throughout the many studies the negative effects are less apparent. However, it seems
Nuclear Energy for Electricity 3
that with increased research and experimentation the downsides of nuclear energy could
be minimized to such an extent that in the future all electricity could be produced though
There are many advantages associated with the usage of nuclear energy for
electricity. While nuclear energy may seem like an expensive replacement for fossil fuels,
in the long run it will cost no more than coal. Though the construction of nuclear power
plants is far more expensive and time consuming than that of coal burning plants, the cost
of actually running nuclear plants is far less. In the following years the total budget will
even out to equal that of coal plants. The construction costs of nuclear plants comes out
to be approximately two to six billion dollars (Nuclear energy in the United States, 2003)
but according to studies by NEI the average production costs of nuclear energy have been
decreasing in the past decade. In 1987 the price was at...
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