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Energy Investing: Understand the Ongoing Nuclear Debate

Energy investors considering investing in nuclear energy should know about the ongoing debate of nuclear power plants. Many people have written many words about the benefits and costs of employing nuclear energy for both civilian and military purposes. Those of a certain age can remember the battle of the “No Nukes” versus “Know Nukes” bumper stickers.

Although there aren’t many picket lines in front of nuclear power plants anymore, the debates of safety versus community benefits and no greenhouse gas emissions versus radioactive waste continue unabated.

The people who are in favor of nuclear energy argue that it’s a sustainable energy source that reduces greenhouse emissions and can increase energy security by reducing dependence on oil from the Middle East. This “Know Nukes” crowd cites the fact that nuclear power plants produce virtually no emission in contrast to coal- or oil-based electricity.

For many countries that must import hydrocarbons — like France, Japan, and China — nuclear power is the only means to achieve energy independence. Nuclear proponents go on to argue that the safety record is strong, new technology limits risk, and that the perils of storing waste are small and can be further reduced with the proper engineering.

There have been more than 14,000 cumulative reactor years from nuclear power plant operation. A reactor year is the total number of reactors multiplied by the total years they’ve been in operation. During this time, only three major reactor accidents have occurred, with fewer deaths than associated with other forms of electricity production on a per-unit-of-electricity-produced basis.

The three major reactor accidents that have occurred are as follows:

  • Three Mile Island was contained without harm after a partial meltdown occurred in 1979. Despite no deaths and no cancer links, it is considered the worst nuclear accident in U.S. history because of the uncertainty it caused and the decision to release 40,000 gallons of radioactive waste water into the Susquehanna River.

  • In 1986, Chernobyl saw the destruction of the reactor by a steam explosion, which killed more than 35 people and had significant health and environmental consequences, but it was due to poor workmanship and low oversight.

  • In 2011, the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster was caused by an earthquake-induced tsunami coupled with ancient technology. Still, the three cores that melted down were contained. Despite media reports, no deaths were directly attributable to the nuclear power plant. Two workers drowned in the flooding.

Pro-nuclear groups point out that this accident rate compares favorably to accidents in other forms of energy production. Nuclear has few fatalities per unit of electricity generated than hydro, coal, or natural gas. In recent years, some high-profile environmentalists have switched over to pro-nuke as the lesser of evils due to its greenhouse gas benefits over hydrocarbons.

Opponents of nuclear power argue that it poses abundant threats to people and to the environment. There are obvious health risks related to radiation leaks, in addition to uranium mining, processing, and transport. They also point to the risks of nuclear weapons getting into the wrong hands, sabotage, and dirty-bombs, and the unresolved problem of what to do with the waste products.

They go on to point out that nuclear power plants are heavily engineered and complex machines in which many things can and do go wrong. The fact that China, with its reputation for shoddy workmanship, corruption, and abysmal environmental policies, is the largest builder of new power plants puts the safety of the technology and engineering into doubt.

Furthermore, this “No Nukes” faction claims that when the whole chain of nuclear power is considered, from mining to production to waste disposal, nuclear power isn’t a low-carbon electricity source.

In addition to the safety debate, there is also the concern of hostile nations getting access to radioactive material. The Middle East gets less of its electricity from nuclear power than any other region (1.8 percent). But the UAE, Iran, Turkey, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia are considering nuclear power as they continue to use up their petroleum assets.

An aggressive Iran has been refining uranium, which it claims is for peaceful electricity production, but the West fears it’s for a nuclear weapon. The pursuit of nuclear energy in the Middle East has raised military concerns in Israel, the United States, and elsewhere.

This debate will likely continue forever. But the future of nuclear power is solid. You can’t put the genie back in the bottle. After Fukushima and the development of cheap natural gas, the drive to build new plants has diminished in Germany and Japan, yet remains strong in many other countries.

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