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Nuclear Power Debate

Grades 11-12 | Argumentative | Source-Based

Source Lexile®: 1250L-1470L

Learning Standards




Prompt: Today you will read two passages, CNN's "Why (or Why Not) Nuclear Energy?" and Scientific American's "How Nuclear Power Can Stop Global Warming". You will also watch a video clip from ABC News about the progress of Fukushima since its meltdown in 2011. Pretend you have been hired as a scientist to write a position paper about nuclear energy. Through this paper, you must educate citizens about nuclear energy, and then develop an argument that either supports or dismisses the nuclear energy industry. Your work will help the United States Government build policy related to nuclear energy. Use specific evidence from both passages and the video clip to support your claim.




Source 1

Why (or why not) nuclear energy?

By Elizabeth Landau, CNN

March 26, 2011



  1. (CNN) -- Since Japan's Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant suffered damage from a massive earthquake and tsunami March 11, you might be a little more aware of the nuclear power plant nearest you. Does it really need to be there? Is it safe? And on a global scale, several countries including Germany, Israel, and Italy are also expressing worry about the safety of their existing or planned nuclear projects. The disaster at Fukushima Daiichi has prompted many governments to begin reassessing their own nuclear power plants in hopes of ensuring that a similar accident would not happen in their territories. "The (nuclear) option will be shoved aside until the dust settles and we know what happened there in Japan, and what kind of changes are necessary to compensate for deficiencies that will be discovered later," said Chaim Braun, consulting professor at the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University.
  2. How much nuclear power is too much, or too little? That's a complex question, experts say. Each country must balance its particular energy needs with the domestic availability of natural resources, consideration for greenhouse gas emissions and cost-effectiveness measures, not to mention safety and foreign policy concerns.

    As you form your own opinions about nuclear power, here are some things to think about:


Reliance on nuclear power

  1. There are 104 operating commercial nuclear reactors in the United States and 54 in Japan before the recent earthquake and tsunami. The U.S. relies on nuclear power for 20% of electricity; for Japan, it accounts for about 27%, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. For countries such as Japan that don't have natural resources like oil and gas, nuclear power plants are attractive options. The cost of construction of nuclear power plants is high, but fuel cost is low; it would be hard for Japan to back out now, experts said. "Will they go back and look at what they need to change? Of course, they will do that. But is this going to be impacting the overall portion of how much power they make by nuclear? I don't necessarily think that's the case," said Peter Hosemann, assistant professor of nuclear engineering at the University of California, Berkeley.
  2. So why not get all electricity from nuclear power? It's not because of safety concerns, but rather because of the importance of energy diversity and energy security, said Najmedin Meshkati, nuclear safety expert at the University of Southern California. Just as you shouldn't invest all your money into one stock, it's wise for a country to have a diverse portfolio of energy sources to ensure constant coverage, experts said. "You need a healthy mix of power supply and power sources in order to guarantee a stable grid," Hosemann said.
  3. There can also be all sorts of beneficial, but non energy-related results of nuclear power generation, which economists call positive externalities. In a country that boosts its nuclear plant development, the heavy-machine building and metallurgy industries might greatly benefit as they would be employed to work on the technology.

    Plus, it's a good idea to have some form of domestic power generation, and not to rely entirely on buying from other countries. For instance, relying on foreign oil can be a problem if the source country decides to hike prices or, for diplomatic reasons, cuts off supply entirely. "Nuclear power provides that energy security," Meshkati said. "It's very secure and very reliable. It's there for you. Nobody else can control it."
  4. But there's another security issue raised by nuclear technology that is a big concern: the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Plutonium from used fuel in nuclear reactors can be used for weapons; in 1974, India tested a bomb that incorporated plutonium from a research reactor. That's why nuclear physicist and Princeton University professor Frank N. von Hippel said he thinks nuclear power should be a "last resort." Countries should look at energy efficiency -- ways to reduce everyday electricity usage -- as well as renewable sources and carbon sequestration, a technology that could capture and bury the carbon dioxide emitted from coal plants. Nuclear energy is not the be-all and end-all, even for Japan, he said. "If nuclear power had not been invented or were not possible, Japan would have figured out how to do it some other way," he said.


Environmentally friendly energy

  1. Nuclear and hydropower sources have 50 to 100 times lower greenhouse gas emissions than coal, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency. But analyses showing nuclear energy's environmental friendliness don't take into account the emissions from the mining and transport of nuclear fuel, said Mark Jacobson of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Stanford University. In his view, a combination of renewable sources such as wind and tidal power should be the standard, and investment in nuclear power, or using a combination of nuclear and other sources, is merely funneling resources to something with potential dangers.
  2. But with renewable energy, it's hard to generate continuous power, known as the baseload demand, said the University of Southern California's Meshkati. Nuclear power plants deliver large amounts of power for long periods of time. Solar and wind energy technologies, on the other hand, rely on natural phenomena that aren't available all the time -- the sun, which doesn't shine in the same place all day, and the wind, which doesn't blow around the clock. For that reason they are "intermittent." But Jacobson and colleagues have shown that, by putting different renewables together, it's possible to fill in the gaps and get steady power.
  3. Energy storage systems can be devised that would store energy when the sun shines, and then release it to the grid when needed after the sun goes down, said Braun, the consulting professor at Stanford. Still, this technology isn't commercialized on a large scale and is currently too expensive to be practical to power large cities. It's unclear whether taxpayers would be willing to pay for large subsidies for solar and wind, Braun said.

    The United States spends about 2% of its gross domestic product on electricity, and if the country were willing to raise that to 3%, it could probably afford using renewables instead of nuclear power, Princeton's von Hippel said.

    "There is a social choice. If people want very much to go away from nuclear power, and are willing to pay for it, which is two different things, then we could," von Hippel said.


The costs

  1. So how cost-effective is nuclear power? Like many issues, it depends on who you ask. Advocates say that, per kilowatt-hour produced, nuclear power is cheaper than other sources. But detractors will point out it's expensive to construct a power plant. An analysis by J.L. Conca of New Mexico State University and J. Wright of UFA Ventures Inc., a soil and rock testing company, found that hydro, nuclear, and wind are the most cost-effective sources over the next 50 years, with almost identical costs per kilowatt-hour of electricity produced. They trump coal, natural gas and solar power in cost-effectiveness, the report found.
  2. But what about adding more capacity? With the next generation of nuclear power technologies, it might not be cost-effective unless the U.S. imposes a price-based constraint on carbon-dioxide emissions. Under the Energy Policy Act of 2005, newly built, advanced-technology nuclear power plants are eligible for incentives such as loan guarantees and tax credits. A 2008 report from the U.S. Congressional Budget Office found that without these incentives, and in the absence of a universal charge for carbon-dioxide emissions, "utilities would probably continue to build power plants relying on conventional fossil-fuel technologies to meet increases in base-load electricity demand." Stanford's Braun predicts that the immediate impact of the Fukushima Daiichi disaster will be that natural gas will become the fuel of choice, sold at higher prices as demand increases.
  3. Yet while nuclear development in smaller countries may be delayed or canceled, China and India likely will continue with their nuclear programs. These are the countries where the most nuclear power plants will be built in the coming years, Braun said. Those countries need nuclear energy to meet their burgeoning electricity needs and to reduce their large emissions of pollutants from other sources, he said.


Toward a better nuclear reactor

  1. A downside of nuclear power plants is that the reactors need constant attention, and so do the spent fuel pools. The University of Southern California's Meshkati compared them to babies that sleep at different times of the day, always requiring care.
  2. The reactors at Japan's Fukushima Daiichi are boiling water reactors, which is one of the oldest designs, he said. But there's a whole category of reactors in development with "inherently safe" features that use the laws of physics to prevent meltdown. For instance, China has planned prototypes of pebble-bed nuclear reactors. These use heat gas instead of the conventional choice of water, and balls made of graphite and uranium instead of uranium fuel rods. These reactors can theoretically cool themselves in case of emergency. "Because of life's necessities and the bitter realities of energy availability, they (Japan) may choose to embrace this new generation of reactors," Meshkati said. After many decades, if the site of Fukushima could be cleaned up, a new generation of "inherently safe" reactors may one day operate in the same place, he said, but don't hold your breath.

    "It's not going to be in my lifetime," Meshkati said.





Source 2

An Exclusive Look at the World's Largest-Ever Nuclear Cleanup

PBS NewsHour



Source 3

How Nuclear Power Can Stop Global Warming

By David Biello

Scientific American

December 12, 2013



  1. When the Atlantic Navigator docked in Baltimore harbor earlier this month, the freighter carried the last remnants of some of the nuclear weapons that the Soviet Union had brandished in the cold war. During the past 20 years more than 19,000 Russian warheads have been dismantled and processed to make fuel for U.S. nuclear reactors. In fact, during that period more than half the uranium fuel that powered the more than 100 reactors in the U.S. came from such reprocessed nuclear weapons.
  2. In addition to reducing the risk of nuclear war, U.S. reactors have also been staving off another global challenge: climate change. The low-carbon electricity produced by such reactors provides 20 percent of the nation's power and, by the estimates of climate scientist James Hansen of Columbia University, avoided 64 billion metric tons of greenhouse gas pollution. They also avoided spewing soot and other air pollution like coal-fired power plants do and thus have saved some 1.8 million lives.
  3. And that's why Hansen, among others, such as former Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, thinks that nuclear power is a key energy technology to fend off catastrophic climate change. "We can't burn all these fossil fuels," Hansen told a group of reporters on December 3, noting that as long as fossil fuels are the cheapest energy source they will continue to be burned. "Coal is almost half the [global] emissions. If you replace these power plants with modern, safe nuclear reactors you could do a lot of [pollution reduction] quickly."
  4. Indeed, he has evidence: the speediest drop in greenhouse gas pollution on record occurred in France in the 1970s and '80s, when that country transitioned from burning fossil fuels to nuclear fission for electricity, lowering its greenhouse emissions by roughly 2 percent per year. The world needs to drop its global warming pollution by 6 percent annually to avoid "dangerous" climate change in the estimation of Hansen and his co-authors in a recent paper in PLOS One. "On a global scale, it's hard to see how we could conceivably accomplish this without nuclear," added economist and co-author Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, where Hansen works.
  5. The only problem: the world is not building so many nuclear reactors.


Nuclear future

  1. China leads the world in new nuclear reactors, with 29 currently under construction and another 59 proposed, according to the World Nuclear Association. And China has not confined itself solely to the typical reactors that employ water and uranium fuel rods; it has built everything from heavy-water reactors originally designed in Canada to a small test fast-reactor.
  2. Yet, even if every planned reactor in China was to be built, the country would still rely on burning coal for more than 50 percent of its electric power—and the Chinese nuclear reactors would provide at best roughly the same amount of energy to the developing nation as does the existing U.S. fleet. Plus, nuclear requires emissions of greenhouse gases for construction, including steel and cement as well as the enrichment of uranium ore required to make nuclear fuel (or the downblending of uranium from nuclear weapons as in the case of the "Megatons to Megawatts" program). Over the full lifetime of a nuclear power plant, that means greenhouse gas emissions of roughly 12 grams of CO2-equivalent per kilowatt-hour of electricity produced, the same as wind turbines (which also require steel, plastics, rare earths and the like in their construction) and less than photovoltaic panels, according to the U.S. Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory.
  3. In other parts of the world nuclear has begun to dwindle. Japan may never restart its nuclear plants in the wake of the multiple meltdowns at Fukushima Daiichi following the earthquake and tsunami in 2011, which also soured public opinion in many parts of the world. Germany still plans to eliminate nuclear power and even France has announced plans to reduce its reliance on reactors. In the U.S. the five new nuclear reactors under construction will replace the four aging reactors that closed in 2013, but as older reactors like Oyster Creek in New Jersey and Vermont Yankee continue to shut down, the number of reactors in the U.S. may be doomed to dwindle as well.
  4. A big problem is cost. The construction of large nuclear power plants requires a lot of money to ensure safety and reliability. For example, for the U.S. to derive one quarter of its total energy supply from nuclear would require building roughly 1,000 new reactors (both to replace old ones and expand the fleet). At today's prices for the two AP-1000 reactors being built in Georgia, such an investment would cost $7 trillion, although that total bill might shrink with an order of that magnitude.
  5. One other idea to cut cost is to begin building smaller reactors of so-called modular design. The Tennessee Valley Authority hopes to catalyze development of such reactors by installing one at its Clinch River site in Tennessee, former home of the U.S.'s failed attempt to build its own commercial fast reactor.
  6. That never-completed breeder reactor is part of a legacy of failed U.S. research and development of new types of reactors, such as the Experimental Breeder Reactor that ran successfully in Idaho for nearly 30 years. "It's a shame that the U.S. essentially stopped R&D on advanced nuclear power a few decades ago," Hansen noted. "By now we should be in a position where a country like China would have some options other than coal."


New dawn?

  1. That said, nuclear reactors are beginning to get the kind of scientific attention not seen since at least the end of the cold war. Novel designs with alternative cooling fluids other than water, such as Transatomic Power's molten salt–cooled reactor or the liquid lead–bismuth design from Hyperion Power, are in development. Alternative concepts have attracted funding from billionaires like Bill Gates. Transatomic Power even won the top prize from energy investors at the 2013 summit of the Advanced Research Projects Agency–Energy, or ARPA–E, in 2013. "The intellectual power of what's been done in the nuclear space should allow for radical designs that meet tough requirements," Gates told ARPA–E's 2012 summit, noting that the modeling power of today's supercomputers should allow even more innovation. "When you have fission, you have a million times more energy than when you burn hydrocarbons. That's a nice advantage to have."
  2. ARPA–E itself, however, has no program to develop alternative reactors because of the expense of proving out novel designs and the long timescales required to develop any of them. "We searched a lot in nuclear," ARPA–E's former director Arun Majumdar, now at Google, said in an interview with Scientific American earlier this year. "We realized that in the nuclear business, investing $30 [million] to $40 million, I'm not sure it would have moved the needle. … That is something that I wish I had had the budget to try."
  3. With more money for development of novel designs and public financial support for construction—perhaps as part of a clean energy portfolio standard that lumps in all low-carbon energy sources, not just renewables or a carbon tax—nuclear could be one of the pillars of a three-pronged approach to cutting greenhouse gas emissions: using less energy to do more (or energy efficiency), low-carbon power, and electric cars (as long as they are charged with electricity from clean sources, not coal burning). "The options for large-scale clean electricity are few in number," Sachs noted, including geothermal, hydropower, nuclear, solar, and wind. "Each part of the world will have different choices about how to get on a trajectory with most of the energy coming from that list rather than coal."
  4. As long as countries like China or the U.S. employ big grids to deliver electricity, there will be a need for generation from nuclear, coal or gas, the kinds of electricity generation that can be available at all times. A rush to phase out nuclear power privileges natural gas—as is planned under Germany's innovative effort, dubbed the Energiewende (energy transition), to increase solar, wind, and other renewable power while also eliminating the country's 17 reactors. In fact, Germany hopes to develop technology to store excess electricity from renewable resources as gas to be burned later, a scheme known as "power to gas," according to economist and former German politician Rainer Baake, now director of an energy transition think tank Agora Energiewende. Even worse, a nuclear stall can lead to the construction of more coal-fired power plants, as happened in the U.S. after the end of the nuclear power plant construction era in the 1980s.
  5. Hansen, for one, argues that abundant, clean energy is necessary to lift people out of poverty and begin to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from a swelling human population. Nuclear is one of the technologies available today—and with room for significant improvement and innovation. In that sense, natural gas is a bridge fuel to disaster, even with some form of CO2 capture and storage, and the world must immediately transition to renewables and nuclear.
  6. But significant hurdles remain, not least the decades required for design, licensing, and construction of even existing nuclear technologies, let alone novel ideas. That may mean advanced nuclear power cannot contribute much to efforts to combat climate change in the near term, which leaves current reactor technology as the only short-term nuclear option—and one that is infrequently employed at the global scale at present.
  7. In the same way, U.S. nuclear power plants have not eliminated the threat of nuclear weapons despite 20 years of megatons to megawatts. Russia retains an estimated 8,500 nuclear warheads—and the U.S. some 7,700—despite the best efforts to fission the problem away. The problem of fission and climate change is equally stuck at present. But, as Hansen wrote in an additional assessment of his new analysis, "Environmentalists need to recognize that attempts to force all-renewable policies on all of the world will only assure that fossil fuels continue to reign for base-load electric power, making it unlikely that abundant affordable power will exist and implausible that fossil fuels will be phased out."









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