Nuclear: Risks and Rewards

The United States and India just came to an agreement that will further the expansion of nuclear power. This agreement will cause the creation of several nuclear plants in India by U.S. companies. With its expansion comes questions of its risks and rewards.

Nuclear energy has a bit of an ominous history. What comes to most people’s minds is Chernobyl. The Chernobyl disaster was caused by the explosion of one of the power plant’s reactors. The outcome of this is still being felt today by those impacted by the radiation. Due to this radiation there is a “zone of alienation” that extends 19 miles in every direction of the power plant. Many are afraid of nuclear power plants due to the effects of the radiation fallout that occurs many miles away from a destroyed plant.

The radiation fallout produced by the Chernobyl disaster.

The radiation fallout produced by the Chernobyl disaster.

Another concern with nuclear energy is the nuclear waste that is produced. It is estimated that each nuclear reactor will annually produce 20-30 tons of nuclear waste. Nuclear power works through the intense heating of water through uranium to spin a turbine and generator. The combined uranium and water creates toxic waste, which many are concerned with the disposal of. The current solution is to take the nuclear waste and bury it deep into the ground into a  “permanent geological repository”.

Nuclear power does have many advantages over natural gases though. Nuclear energy has the lowest impact on the environment due to the fact that it does not release any greenhouse gases such as oil and natural gases do. It is also extremely powerful and very efficient.

Many risks do come along with the implementation of nuclear power, but there are many advantages too. Its expansion is dependent upon weighing the risks and rewards.

Efforts for Efficient Energy

Renewable energy, the idea is so simple, but implementing it? Not so much.

If everyone had access to green energy they would most likely use it. The issue is that capturing renewable energy can be extremely expensive and even impossible to get in certain areas. Alaska is a sad example of this. Alaskans can expect to pay three times the average amount for electricity than the rest of the United States. The state has made it obvious that they are working very hard to get renewable energy to their people to help lessen the cost and lessen their dependency on fossil fuels.In an attempt to do this, the state is trying to harness geothermal energy. To generate geothermal energy you have to dig very deep into the ground in order to obtain heat from the Earth’s core. It is also possible to use the steam emitted from the Earth to move a turbine and create even more energy.

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Krafla Geothermal Station in Iceland

The unfortunate part is that Alaska only has a few areas capable of generating this sustainable energy. Sean Skaling, Alaska Energy Authority’s programs and evaluation director explained, “‘The trick with geothermal is just like any of the other resources,’ he said. ‘You have to find the resource, find it in abundance, make the energy cost effective, which also means it has to be close to a population base.'” With the majority of the population living in Anchorage, it will be near to impossible for the state to access this renewable energy source.

China is another place where those in charge are going to extreme lengths to use green energy. China is different in the way that they have plenty of access to obtain clean energy, but it seems that they are incapable of keeping up with their expanding population. It is clearly not because of lack of effort though. The New York Times reports that “more than $250 billion a year is expected to be poured into the construction of renewable energy production”. Despite China leading the world in solar, wind and other sustainable energy sources they still make up about half of the world’s coal usage. It is discouraging to know that despite all of their efforts “according to projections by the United States Energy Information Administration, annual emissions are expected to reach twice their 2009 levels by 2040.”

It is reassuring to know that so many places are going extremely out of their way to substitute fossil fuels with renewable energy. If there were more easily accessible ways to harness clean energy, the results could be so influential because if it were easy, then everyone would do it.

The Dead Zone

In the northern part of the Gulf of Mexico there is a yearly occurrence of what is now called the “Dead Zone” that has grown to nearly the size of Connecticut. This event is caused by algal blooms which causes a depletion of the oxygen in the water, this then results in a hypoxic zone. The lack of oxygen makes the water inhospitable for marine life and kills what is there if it is unable to move to other waters. Every year it appears that the Dead Zone is expanding and this has immediate effects on the surrounding environment and economy. The shrimp and oysters in Louisiana is typically a thriving source of income, but the Dead Zone is diminishing that. Just 30 years ago, 90% of shrimp consumed in the United States came from Louisiana, but now it is only 30%. 

The expansion of the Dead Zone can be credited to the expansion of fertilizer used in Corn Belt of the United States. In the past few decades, the usage of fertilizer in agriculture has increased significantly. A very important ingredient of fertilizer is nitrogen. Nitrogen is a limiting nutrient, meaning that it dictates the growth of many organisms. When put into fertilizer it typically generates much more of whatever crop is being grown than soil without nitrogen. These nitrogen-filled fertilizers have had a very positive impact on the agriculture industry, but the introduction of large amounts of nitrogen to very delicate ecosystems can have a very large effect. The Mississippi River Drainage Basin (pictured below) is what brings all of the runoff of fertilizers (containing high amounts of nitrogen) into the Gulf of Mexico.

Figure One: This map shows the Mississippi River Drainage Basin that connects all of the rivers in the Corn Belt and flows into the Gulf of Mexico.

The practices of intensive farming have had serious effects to environment. Just from 2002 to 2007, there was a 30% increase in the nitrogen levels of the water in the Mississippi River. Also, there has been a 300% increase in the level of algae-boosting nutrients in the past century. The increases of these factors negatively impact the creatures living in these waters.

Figure Two: This displays a large number of dead crabs washed ashore near the Gulf of Mexico’s Dead Zone.

In order to minimize this dangerous Dead Zone there must be a change in agricultural norms. The usage of nitrogen-filled fertilizers must be regulated in order to prevent more runoff and larger algal blooms. The protection of the Gulf of Mexico is vital not only for the environment, but also for the economies of those states surrounding it.

Volcanoes Eruptions and Albedo

Earth’s environment is extremely intricate and every action has a reaction, thus what is happening in the Arctic has an effect all over the world. The ice in the Arctic has a very high albedo where it reflects 85% of sunlight, but as the ice melts more sunlight is absorbed into the water which results in more ice melting. Due to the decline in albedo the Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet.

Albedo measurement of the Arctic through satellite imaging from 1985.

Albedo measurement of the Arctic through satellite imaging from 1985.

Albedo measurement of the Arctic through satellite imaging from 2008.

Albedo measurement of the Arctic through satellite imaging from 2008.

The satellite images above display the rapid decline of albedo in the Arctic. With less sunlight being reflected off of the Arctic ice over time, much more than normal is being absorbed. This heightened absorption causes an increase in temperature of the water and the ice caps resulting in quicker melting.

Along with melting ice caps, this has a serious effect on other parts of the environment. Scientists believe that the melting ice has caused an increase in volcanic activity.

Ice caps are extremely heavy and it is believed that as they form they bend the Earth’s crust beneath them. Then as this ice melts and the weight is lessened on the crust and it moves up. Volcanic eruptions are caused by the movement of tectonic plates beneath the Earth’s crust. This movement from the alleviated weight causes magma to much more easily reach the surface, thus causing more volcanic activity.

This is not the first time in Earth’s history that this relationship between large quantities of ice melting and an increase of volcanic activity has been documented. Scientists believe that around 12,000 years the Earth was losing a great amount of glaciers and that this directly caused an increase of six times the normal volcanic activity of the time.

This connection truly shows how interdependent nature is. It displays just how delicate our world is and what immediate effects climate change is having on Earth. I believe that this accurately shows how we as a global community must work to protect the ice caps and most importantly, our planet.