Nuclear Power vs. Coal
Current Status and Potential
Coal is one of the major sources of power in the U.S., given the richness of the resource in the nation. About a billion short tons are generated in the country annually. Around 92% of coal produced is used for combustion in power plants, and contributes up to 37% to the net electricity generated in the country (“Energy in Brief”). That being said, the demand for coal has been consistent, given its necessity, but that is about to change. Recent trends point to lesser demand as recent political developments give renewables a lot of incentives, and as natural gas rises to the fore of combustibles in the business (Mintz and Wegryzn). However, coal is still seen as a strong candidate for an energy source in the foreseeable future.
Nuclear energy, on the other hand, makes up for about 20% of the country’s energy output. Given its nature, it produces massive amounts of energy available for consumption—around 12.2 billion kWh a year—and with much cleaner outputs than other alternatives. It doesn’t have strong emissions like combustibles, all the while supplying more electricity than other alternatives (Riggins). Major economies like China, India and Brazil are making plans to increase usage in the near future (IAEA). However, it poses several health risks since the materials and the processes it uses to generate power are usually toxic or highly radioactive. The aftermath of Chernobyl and Fukushima remain as painful reminders of what damage nuclear power can do if not safeguarded (Nuclear Energy Institute).
Explanation and Evaluation of Effects
Coal and nuclear power have a variety of effects to public health and safety. There are five general areas/phases of generation where public health may be compromised. They are as follows:
Construction. There is little to moderate risk for workers during construction of coal and nuclear mining and processing facilities. These risks come from poor compliance with health and safety guidelines by workers, and can be easily avoided.
Mining. Moderate risks are involved in this process, but still largely on the side of the worker. Exposure to harmful chemicals used during the mining process, as well as drainage from the mine, are significant health risks for miners. There is also a possibility of mines collapsing due to a number of natural causes or poor compliance with regulations (Donoghue).
Normal Operations. Combustion from coal is the leading source of air pollution through the realase of toxic substances like NOx and SO2, and increasing CO2 in the atmosphere (Environmental Protection Agency). As for nuclear, thermal effluents from its cooling ponds usually cause thermal pollution, which affects the delicate underwater ecosystems.
Accidents. The effects of accidents in coal plants are usually limited to workers, and usually arise form technical malfunctions in the average routine. On the other hand, malfunctions in nuclear facilities can pose significant damage to immediate and proximate communities. Given the high toxicity of the materials and processes involved, negligence or natural calamities, such as Fukushima, have a significant bearing on the health and safety of workers and the public alike.
Long-Term Effects. Exposure to polluted air can have significant effects for both workers and the public. Grave ailments like lung cancer and other respiratory conditions can occur due to excessive exposure to toxic substances (Barboza). As for nuclear facilities, radiation emitted from facilities can lead to cancer, although it takes a significant amount of time and happens very rarely (Habib).
A cost-benefit analysis would most likely favor nuclear energy over coal, especially in light of both risks and trends in the industry. For one, coal and nuclear extraction processes expose workers to the same elements and same risks. Next, during normal operations, air pollution is the more expressed bane; damages done by thermal pollution pale in comparison to air pollution, although this is not to say that the problem need not be resolved.
In terms of accidents, one must keep in mind that these are the exceptions and not the rule. While repercussions for accidents are surely costly, they do not make the everyday functions of plants, so fear of compromises in nuclear power plants is borderline paranoid. Again, this does not mean that no care should be taken to safeguard the safety of power plants. That being said, they do more harm than good. And this is obviously offset by the relatively larger output generated by nuclear power plants. More nuclear energy can mean cheaper electricity.
Barboza, Tony. “Air Pollution Causes Lung Cancer, World Health Organization Says.” Science Now. 17 October 2013. Web. 07 November 2013.
Donoghue, A.M. “Occupational Health Hazards in Mining: An Overview.” Occupational Medicine 54.1 (2004): 283-289.
Environmental Protection Agency. Air Emissions. 25 September 2013. Web. 07 November 2013.
Habib, Rima R. “Cancer incidence among Australian nuclear industry workers.” Journal of Occupational Health 48.5 (2006): 358-365.
IAEA. Nuclear Energy Development in the 21st Century: Global Scenarios and Regional Trends. Vienna, Austria: International Atomic Energy Agency, 2010. Print.
Mintz, Marianne and Wegryzn, Jim. Renewable Natural Gas: Current Status, Challenges and Issues. U.S. Department of Energy. 23 September 2009. Web. 07 November 2013.
Nuclear Energy Institute. Japan: Comparing Chernobyl and Fukushima. February 2012. Web. 07 November 2013.
Riggins, Jennifer. “Building the World’s Largest Nuclear Fusion Reactor.” Smart Planet. 28 March 2013. Web. 07 November 2013.
U.S. Energy Information Administration. Energy in Brief. 16 August 2013. Web. 07 October 2013.
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