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7 April, 2011  ▪  Yurіy Raykhel

Alternatives to Nuclear Energy

Mankind cannot afford to abandon nuclear energy but should change its approach to the way it is used

Since the accident at Fukushima No. 1 plant in Japan the world has been overtaken by nuclear fever. Germany, Russia, China, the UK, and Argentina are again conducting inspections of power-generating units – even suspending operations at some of them – and the Greens poured out into the streets to protest. But in the Land of the Rising Sun itself no one is panicking or even raising the issue of abandoning nuclear power. Fukushima No. 1 plant will, of course, be closed — something that should have been done a long time ago – but this does not mean the baby should be thrown out with the bathwater.

The greatest threat to the environment

While opponents of nuclear energy seem to have received another card in their fight against the technology, emotions should not prevail over common sense.

In fact, experts are largely in favor of either further exploiting nuclear power units at power plants or building new facilities.

We cannot afford to abandon nuclear energy today and not even in the distant future. Its replacement with thermal energy would lead to much higher consumption of coal, natural gas, and oil. In addition to being unfeasible, this would pose threats to the environment. Thermal power stations are relatively inefficient and the laws of thermodynamics rules out any significant increase.

As a general rule, people seem to be rather unconcerned with the fact that they breathe air polluted with phosphorus and sulfur emitted by thermal power stations. The amount of these elements absorbed by humans is much more dangerous than the radioactivity in the evacuation zone around Fukushima.

Strangely, the colossal environmental catastrophe on an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico did not draw as much attention, even though it is much broader in scope and perilous in consequences than the disaster in Japan.

Those who oppose nuclear energy are perfectly aware of this fact but keep it to themselves and instead promote legends about alternative energy sources.

Sun, wind, water

The main myth circulating about renewable energy is that sunlight, wind and so forth can be used to produce environmentally clean energy; in fact, this is not the case at all. Generating any kind of electric current, i.e., converting one type of energy into another, inevitably involves losses, and large-scale energy generation leads to threats to the environment. Take, for example, electric transport which seems to be clean and free of emissions. The fact that is somehow forgotten or purposefully hushed up is that switching to these types of vehicles involves a multiple-fold increase in the demand for energy which has to be generated either by thermal or nuclear power plants. In essence, this simply shifts the environmental burden from a specific car to a power plant.

Take solar energy as another example. When you need to supply electricity to one house, especially in a remote area, photovoltaics (PV) are very efficient. However, if we are talking about really replacing thermal power stations, the outlook is not that bright. Use of such an energy source requires high-potential solar energy which can be concentrated only by special devices. The amount of energy generated in this way is directly proportional to the surface of the photocells installed, hence the problems.

Solar reflectors block sunlight over large areas of land, causing significant changes in the soil, vegetation, and fauna. Mirror boosters installed at a solar power plant concentrate solar radiation which heats the air in the locality producing undesirable effects on the environment. At the same time, some of the solar energy dissipates leading to the same kind of thermal pollution found around large power plants. Solar concentrators are cooled with low-boiling liquids which contain highly toxic chromates and nitrites. If the hurdles to increasing the efficiency coefficient of photocells posed by quantum-mechanics are removed, these problems will be less acute but still will not disappear altogether.

The same holds for wind power. It has been used for centuries in the Netherlands. Nevertheless, the Dutch only build low-capacity wind farms. Attempts to increase production of this type of energy have led to negative environmental consequences where no one expected them. When winds slowed along the coast of the Netherlands, Belgium, Great Britain, and France, the amount of oxygen they brought to the upper layers of the sea is reduced and as a result great amount of fish dies.

The share of alternative energy is increasing, but it will not replace the traditional sources in the near future.

Real alternatives

The first thing that will be on the agenda now is increasing the safety of nuclear power plants. Everyone has received proof again that technologically outdated plants, like FukushimaNo. 1, should be taken off line. New plants should be built using modern technologies and engineering. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has to play a key role here through defining new safety standards. An international document that would force countries to close old nuclear power plants is needed.

Nevertheless, these measures go only halfway in solving the overall problem. We need a fundamental overhaul of our philosophy of energy consumption. Increasing energy output needs to be superseded by the effective use of what is available now.

The entire world is switching to fluorescent lamps, which consume a fifth of the energy needed for ordinary incandescent lamps. But again a problem arises: every such energy-saving source of light has mercury vapor and requires special recycling and an expensive processing technique, which greatly lowers the net economic effect. Should Ukraine invest in this dead-end lighting option?

Instead, we need to focus on introducing LED lights. They consume 7–10% of the energy required for incandescent lights, do not require expensive recycling, and have a range of additional advantages, including the circular luminosity diagram and the absence of UV light, which is very good for eyesight.

Adopting LED lights in Ukraine would save about 36–45 billion kWh, the equivalent of consuming 5–6 million tons of coal mined in 8–10 medium-size coal mines. The resulting lower thermal emissions will cut the costs of cooling rooms, which for example may be a significant factor for a large store in which many lamps are on almost around the clock. Thus, even more energy can be saved. An incandescent lamp has a lifetime of 1,000 hours, a fluorescent one 20,000, and a LED light 100,000–150,000. And even this is not the limit: there are LED lamps now that are made to operate 400,000–500,000 hours that is for 45–57 years.

The next problem that needs to be solved is the great amount of electricity lost during transmission and distribution. The system of powerful power plants and long-distance transmission to end users is in the past. Energy generation should move closer to the user.

Finally, it is time to switch to intelligent networks and metering. In Italy, intelligent meters were installed in apartments and a more even energy distribution was achieved resulting in electricity bills dropping by 35–50%. In turn, energy companies put 5% of their energy-generating capacities on reserve – also significant savings.

The era of cheap electricity is gone forever. The strict safety requirements at power plants necessitate huge expenditures, leading to higher energy prices. An alternative to this is energy conservation and efficient energy consumption based on revolutionary technologies.

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