Sustainability of Nuclear Fission Energy

While nuclear energy has been cited as a potential solution in achieving carbon-free electricity, there are many problems facing its development.  Nuclear generation is met with public and political opposition due to concerns regarding nuclear accidents and nuclear waste.  Additionally, very high initial investment costs make it difficult to find funding for nuclear energy projects.  Piera (2010) examines the sustainability issues related to nuclear fission energy by reviewing ongoing lines of research and development in the field and potential alternative reactor technologies.  While the analysis points out the major drawbacks of nuclear energy, those related to safety, security, and the environment, Piera highlights that nuclear fission is a sound CO2-free source of energy.  The study argues that nuclear fission has a high maturity in its current state of commercial development and has enormous potential in new phases of industrial development.  Carolyn Campbell
Piera, M., 2010. Sustainability issues in the development of nuclear fission energy. Energy Conservation and Management 51, 938–946.

          Emphasized as an important option for keeping atmospheric CO2 below 550 ppm,  nuclear power plants currently provide 16% of the global electricity generation.  While generation is increasing 1% each year, this rate is incredibly modest when compared to the global yearly increase in primary energy consumption.  Nuclear fission energy is well suited to meet the needs of future energy policies due to the guaranty of supply, environmental quality, and moderate energy costs.  However, nuclear energy development is hindered by public and political opposition as well as financing difficulties. 
          Throughout the paper, Piera assessed the concept of sustainable development as applicable to nuclear energy.  First coined in the Brundtland Report, sustainable development stressed the importance of considering social, economic, and environmental issues to ensure the same development and living conditions for future generations.  In this context, energy is a very critical issue.  While nuclear energy is considered an important energy alternative with very low CO2 emissions, current LWR reactors are inefficient.  Only 0.55% of the potential energy in mined uranium is converted into heat in the reactors, a fact that hampers the future development of nuclear energy.  Therefore, Pierra argues, future research should focus on options for new reactors and fuel cycles that could exploit natural resources up to 70% or more.  Additionally, nuclear natural resources could be more completely exploited through nuclear breeding.  Even-numbered heavy nuclei, U-238 and Th-232, cannot be considered true fuels because they do not undergo fission with thermal neutrons.  Through nuclear breeding these even-numbered nuclei can be converted into odd-numbered nuclei, specifically Pu-239 and U-233. 
          While nuclear breeding may be a solution for more efficient use of nuclear natural resources, it causes concerns related to nuclear proliferation.  Pu-239 seems to be a suitable material for nuclear weapons, a social concern that must be addressed in sustainability assessments.  Additionally, the waste burden of nuclear energy hinders the sustainability of nuclear fission energy.  While deep geological repositories have been suggested as a solution for waste storage, the radiotoxicity of nuclear waste can last for 1000 centuries.  Therefore, to make nuclear energy more sustainable the waste must be reduced as much as possible before its final disposal.  The “open cycle” in use today cannot achieve such a reduction.  By switching to a closed cycle with nuclear fuel recycling, much less fuel would need to be disposed of. 
Another concern with nuclear energy generation is nuclear accidents.  The meltdown of Chernobyl-4 had catastrophic affects on humans and the environment.  However, the reactor was running an experiment when the accidents took place and the six-safety systems had been shut off.  Generation 3 reactors have learned from the Chernobyl accident and in turn have incorporated more advanced safety systems. 

          In conclusion, Peira proposes four main sustainability technical criteria for nuclear energy.  First, nuclear reactors and nuclear fuel facilities must have enhanced safety features.  Second, natural nuclear materials must be more highly exploited.  Third, radioactive inventory of waste must be minimized before disposal.  And finally, proliferation-resistant technologies must be developed.  By achieving these criteria, nuclear fission energy will become a more sustainable and viable option for the future.  

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