Most of the world’s electrical power is generated by utilizing non-renewable energy resources such as coal or uranium. While each material has a long and productive history of powering electrical plants, they also provide environmental challenges that defy easy comparison. Only by examining the total lifetime risks of the coal and uranium used in energy plants can it be determined which is better for the environment.
Coal-fired electric power plants emit massive amounts of greenhouse gases and other harmful pollutants to the atmosphere on a daily basis. Among the worst offenders are sulfur dioxide, which contributes to the formation of acid rain; nitrogen oxides, which combine with VOCs to form smog; and toxic compounds of mercury. That’s beyond the tonnage of carbon dioxide emissions that contribute directly to climate change. Burning coat releases over two pounds of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere for every kilowatt-hour of electricity it creates (See References 1, 2).
Greenhouse Gas Effect of Nuclear Power Plants
Nuclear power plants emit no carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, mercury, or other toxic gases. A properly managed facility does not directly contribute to atmospheric climate change; the broad cooling towers characteristic of nuclear plants emit water vapor. Some coastal plants, however, discharge heated water back to lakes and seas, and this heat eventually radiates into surface warming. Raising water temperature in this way may also alter the way carbon dioxide is exchanged with the air by ocean bodies, leading to major shifts in weather patterns such as hurricanes (See references 1, 3, 4).
A typical coal-burning power plant creates over 300,000 tons of waste ash and sludge each year. That residue forms a toxic mess with pollutants such as arsenic, cadmium, chromium and mercury (See Reference 5). A typical nuclear power plant generates 20 metric tons of radioactive waste annually. This material must be isolated, transported and stored in remote locations for hundreds of years. Exposure to high levels of radiation is deadly to people and animals (See Reference 6).
While a nuclear power plant is completely safe under ideal conditions, the failure of a poorly designed facility in Chernobyl led to the world’s largest single eco-disaster. The failure of the Fukushima nuclear power plants following a series of earthquakes and tsunamis demonstrated that even well designed nuclear energy systems are not risk-free. Frightening as those episodes may seem, however, the danger of climate change caused by greenhouse gas emissions may be more urgent — and thus make nuclear a better choice than coal for the environment.
- U.S. Environmental Protection Agency: Air Emissions
- U.S. Energy Information Administration: Carbon Dioxide Emissions from the Generation of Electric Power in the United States
- Marian Koshland Science Museum: Global Warming Facts and Our Future: Ocean Circulation
- U.S. Environmental Protection Agency: Nuclear Energy
- Union of Concerned Scientists: Coal Power: Wastes Generated
- Nuclear Energy Institute: Nuclear Waste: Amounts and On-Site Storage
Source: M.Matthews from homeguides.sfgate.com