The Rhetoric of Nuclear Power
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As clean and cheap source of energy that does not contribute to the greenhouse effect and exhaust natural resources, nuclear plants present an appealing alternative to fossil fueled sources of energy. However, over the last two decades, many concerns have been expressed not only by scientists but by interested groups and media regarding the nuclear energy and, in particular, its waste. Environmentalists and the general public have raised legitimate questions whether usage of nuclear power should continue despite the fact that the problem of dealing with nuclear waste has not been resolved. Decades of employment of nuclear power led to the generation of large quantities of long-lived radioactive waste. Finding safe and reliable ways of disposing of waste is today’s most formidable problem of nuclear power industry. Future of nuclear energy largely depends on whether the governments will find the efficient and reliable ways to utilize nuclear waste without endangering the environment. Although there are several ways of disposing nuclear waste materials such as temporary storages with subsequent recycling, sending it to the Sun, and the geologic depository, the analysis shows that the safest available way of disposing spent radioactive fuel is storing it in the Earth-based geologic depositories.
Background of the Nuclear Waste Issue
The problem of waste disposal was not given much attention when power plants were introduced. Scientists expressed confidence that the waste will be buried or recycled. Real life practice proved that finding safe ways to store radioactive waste is more difficult than previously expected. Since the usage of nuclear energy will continue for decades to come, governments should explore different ways of radioactive waste disposal: burying, sending it to space, and transferring to harmless materials. Such practice will allow identifying the safest and the most cost-efficient way of ensuring that next generations of the Earth population will inherit and enjoy safe and unpolluted environment free from radioactive contamination.
According to the United States federal law, US Department of Energy bears responsibility for the development of a disposal facility, where radioactive waste from the US nuclear power plants can be stored. In 1987, US Congress made a landmark decision to designate Yucca Mountain in Nevada to be the nation’s permanent storage facility for all the nuclear waste generated in the US. The works on the geological repository site progressed until 2010, when Obama’s administration did not include most of the expenses for building a repository into the Federal Budget. Since that time, nearly all funding for Yucca Mountain project was eliminated. Obama’s administration committed to the development of a new strategy of nuclear waste disposal.
In the meantime, scientists, interested groups, and mass media engaged in debates over the issue of the most effective way to use nuclear fuel disposal. Currently, scientists offer three alternatives of handling dangerous waste. The first option is building geological repositories as permanent storage facilities for wastes. The second option is sending a spacecraft with spent fuel to space, the Sun or the Moon. The third option is the development of technologies that will allow recycling used fuel into a substance that is not harmful to humans and the environment. However, geological repository seems to be the most cost-effective and realistic direction for solving the waste problem within next several decades.
Benefits of Temporary Storages and Recycling
Rosner and Goldberg, renowned scientists in the field of energy technologies and nuclear energy in particular, call nuclear energy “a sustainable, secure and safe energy choice” (58). Authors use logically sound idea of future economic benefits to advocate a pragmatic approach to waste management concerns. They claim that the government should focus on the creation of interim above the ground storages for radioactive waste. Both authors believe that “future value of accumulated waste materials can provide an economic justification for nuclear recycling” (Rosner and Goldberg 58). Authors appeal to the US society and academic circles’ interest in safety and sustainability of future development intertwined with possibility of profit and economic benefits. They say, “above-ground dry cask storage has been demonstrated to be economically advantageous, environmentally benign, and safe” (59). Author’s language is logical and pragmatic, they appeal to people’s ability to think reasonably and attempt to evoke business sense, as well as show possible benefits of temporary storages and recycling. They offer a waste disposal solution in the form of consolidated dry cask storage, where used fuel assemblies will be placed in airtight containers surrounded by radiation shielding and stored at regional centers. In authors’ opinion, this will be a safe and efficient temporary way of handling spent fuel until effective recycling method will be developed. The advantage of such arrangement is that it provides access to spent fuel right after reprocessing technology is identified. Reprocessing will allow either turning waste into energy asset or deactivating and making it harmless for the environment. Option of dry cask storages gives time for current research to mature and find solutions for development of permanent storages and/ or advanced recycling technologies (Rosner and Goldberg 59). Idea of interim storages has one weakness: it is not a permanent solution, and the necessity of development of final disposal/use of the nuclear waste will remain. However, cask storages will give enough time to generate needed resources for further research and development of permanent storage or reprocessing solution (Rosner and Goldberg 60).
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Importantly, the World Nuclear Association recognizes both interim storages and geological repository (storing waste inside the Yucca Mountain) as safe, publicly accepted, environmentally sound and effective long-term waste disposal strategies (World Nuclear Association). The opinion of the World Nuclear Association is valuable in that it is a reputable international organization with powerful research capabilities and policy-making and regulating authority in regards to the usage of nuclear power. However, one can argue that stance of this organization may be biased since it is comprised of supporters of nuclear fuel industry and big corporations who derive large monetary benefits from continuous deployment of nuclear energy for the needs of global society.