PROs and CONs of nuclear energy

PROs and CONs of nuclear energy


After the catastrophes of Three Mile Island (near Harrisburg, USA) and Chernobyl, nuclear energy is a very controversial topic. Some people and organisations such as Bündnis 90/Die Grünen demand the immediate decommissioning of all nuclear power plants. Most people ask if that is really appropriate. Is it?


As long as operated correctly, the German power plants are relatively safe. However, when discussing the cons of nuclear energy, people often state that one could die from cancer. Even under 'normal' circumstances, it is said that people living close to a nuclear power plant suffer from cancer more often than other people.

In fact, everyone is exposed to radiation almost all the time for example while we are sitting in class. About sixty per cent [official numbers of the Federal Republic of Germany as published in 'Umweltdaten Deutschland 1995', Umweltbundesamt, Berlin, Statistisches Bundesamt, Wiesbaden] of all rays harming us are of natural origin such as cosmic rays and radioactive isotopes. Only the remaining forty per cent of rays are composed of man-made risks. And medical applications such as X rays contribute to our exposure 150 times as much as nuclear power plants! These power stations cause only 0,25 % of our exposure to radioactivity.

Meltdowns and the East

But when operated incorrectly, an occurring nuclear meltdown would be disastrous. When talking about a possible meltdown in Germany, people tend to exaggerate the actual risks. All reactors comply with the latest western standards on nuclear technology. A comparison of our cutting-edge reactors with Chernobyl certainly is unfair, but not every catastrophe is caused by human failure. An earthquake striking a power station is something even the best technicians cannot prevent.

The Soviet-designed reactors however which are used by our eastern European neighbours are even more troubling. These '60s-vintage reactors are outdated and dangerous. Why? Most of them lack the containment. That is some sort of coat which is made of concrete and protects the environment from radiation caused by a possible nuclear meltdown.

The core is so huge that sensors have difficulty monitoring such variables as temperature and neutron flow. And it is packed with graphite. So in case of an accident it would heavily burn just like coal. If the coolant leaks out, the chain reaction speeds up. And electrical cables run 'through common ducts; a single fire can knock them all out' [4]. Computer-controlled instrumentations and modern fire-prevention systems are virtually non-existent. These are only the most basic errors - among others - which have been made by Soviet designers.

Without providing funds for upgrading their safety systems to our high western standard, we may face a second Chernobyl-style disaster perhaps a bit closer to our borders than the Ukrainian reactor. Even if we shut down all our nuclear power plants, we would still face the risk of meltdowns in former Soviet satellites, because radioactivity does not stop at man-made borders. Chernobyl's fallout rapidly spread through the northern hemisphere within a month of the accident.

But we shouldn't forget that our neighbours desperately need the energy to help their ailing economies recover from 45 years of communist stagnation. We certainly can't deny them future prosperity, but what European partners want to pay for the upgrade of their reactors?

Which energy is more eco-friendly?

When talking about coal power plants, people automatically think that they contribute to the greenhouse effect because they emit carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide and other 'greenhouse gases' threaten the planet with a potentially catastrophic climate change. Some years ago, you would probably say: 'Hmm, a miner can eliminate 100 percent of the risk to himself simply by giving up mining where the hazards of radiation are imposed on us all.' [cf. 5] The hazards of other sources of energy are imposed on us all, too.

Nuclear power plants do not emit carbon dioxide and thus help to save our earth. Coal power plants use only about 30 % of the energy contained in coal, meaning that only thirty per cent of the energy is transformed into electrical energy. Nuclear power plants are much more effective.

However, we shouldn't forget that nuclear power plants heat up rivers, because they need cooling water for the reactors.

The price tag

People who are highly convinced of nuclear energy often claim that this energy is cheap, but such calculations are often based on ideology rather than actual facts. Those who oppose nuclear power add research costs, subventions and other problems to the price tag of nuclear energy. The others do the same with other energies as well. It depends on how you weigh the individual costs.

The French by the way offer us very, very cheap nuclear energy, which they certainly wouldn't if it was more expensive than coal. Our western partner operates 55 nuclear reactors, the most in Western Europe.


It is very difficult to distinguish between the military and the civilian use of nuclear energy. The IAEO, the International Atomic Energy Organisation, which is headed by Hans Blix has severe problems tracking countries interested in developing an atom bomb. Unemployed nuclear physicists from the former Soviet Union could be attracted by Third World countries like Iraq, Iran or North Korea to pursue the process of developing an atom bomb and Plutonium, a by-product of some reactors, can easily be extracted from nuclear power plants. On the other hand, this has nothing to do with decommissioning a German reactor.


Yet, I haven't mentioned the disposing of the radioactive waste which continues to emit radioactive rays. The mastery of this technology has been impossible up to now. The most elegant solution simply is to bury the waste in great, big holes which isn't that technologically sophisticated. The burial sites could be breached by earthquake, underground streams or radioactive leakage. And the trucks and railroad cars which carry the radioactive waste to these sites could run off the road or jump the tracks.

Future generations will inherit these problems and it is unfair for us to produce energy at their expenses, but by using coal they inherit our problems, too, because it contributes to the effects of global warming. The idiom 'out of sight, out of mind' doesn't apply to the waste problems of nuclear fuels, but it doesn't to fossil fuels either.


It would be a clever idea to subsidise the development of alternative technologies, but solar, wind and tidal energy cannot compete with traditional forms of energy now. And it is not clear that pursuing these technologies leads to important and essential breakthroughs in these areas, but we should give it a try.

In the foreseeable future, Germany needs a mixture of several energies. Today, neither nuclear nor coal nor alternative energies are convincing. At the international conference on ecology in Berlin, various states including Germany agreed on reducing the emission of carbon dioxide. That is only possible if we rely on nuclear energy, because alternative energy isn't fit to fill in the gap coal would leave. And relying on nuclear energy alone certainly is too dangerous.

I doubt that energy conservation alone, as the Greens claim, would be sufficient. But every German party is in favour of a so-called eco-tax to make German consumers pay what it costs to produce electricity on an ecological level. Currently, people discuss how to implement such a reform because we shouldn't increase the tax burden on our citizens.


James O. Jackson, 'The Price of Power in Easter Europe', TIME Magazine, March 20, 1995

Bruce W. Nelan, 'Playing a Game of Nuclear Roulette', TIME Magazine, January 10, 1994

Michael D. Lemonick, 'Do We Still Care About The Planet?', TIME Magazine, April 24, 1995

James O. Jackson, 'Nuclear Time Bombs', TIME Magazine, May 25, 1992

Approaches, Working with Texts, Max Hueber Verlag, 1983

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