May 13th, 2008 13:04 EST
Century of Nuclear Energy
Power shortages, which happen with alarming regularity, remind us how dependent we are on electricity. As countries drain their natural resources, the only source of power that can save the civilization from total darkness is the atom.
Nuclear power has fascinated and thrilled people ever since President Truman gave the order to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The fact that the first use of nuclear fission had a military aim has contaminated the way we think about nuclear reactors and their disastrous effects when things do not go as planned. And although scientists claim that tragedies similar to the one in Chernobyl in 1986 are unlikely to occur if proper control is maintained, the idea of building more nuclear plants still freezes blood.
The first civilian nuclear power station was built in the Soviet Union. Located roughly 50 miles south of Moscow, the Obninsk plant was accomplished in a record three years and, at its debut in 1954, provided energy to 2,000 homes. Like in most similar facilities that soon mushroomed in Europe and the United States, the Russian reactor was cooled by water from a nearby river. Little attention was put to safety as hardly anyone realized the downside of nuclear energy. With minimal changes in its construction, the Obninsk nuclear plant worked for almost half a century but was eventually closed in April 2002.
In August 2007, there were 438 nuclear plants in 30 countries. They produced some 17 percent of world energy, a slight decrease in comparison with previous years. At the same time, 31 nuclear stations were under construction while 119 were shut down. Two facilities were opened by the end of 2007. In Europe, France held the lead with 59 nuclear power plants that produced almost 80 percent of the country`s power demand. In the western hemisphere, the United States hosted 104 nuclear reactors, but they satisfied only 20 percent of the national energy consumption.
There are also countries that do not use nuclear energy. One of the few exceptions in the developed world is Poland where power plants are fueled by either natural gas or coal. Plans to build a nuclear reactor were first made as early as the 1970s but the opposition from ecologists proved too strong and the government had to back down. However, in 2007, Polish authorities signed a deal with Lithuania and Latvia according to which Poland co-sponsors a nuclear facility in Lithuania that will provide energy to all the three countries.
At the onset of the third millennium, a group of 12 countries established the Generation IV International Forum. Working in concert, they hope to make nuclear facilities safer, mainly by substituting water as a cooling substance for more efficient sodium and helium. The former has been long used in nuclear American submarines and experts say it could be successfully introduced to civilian nuclear power plants. So far the majority of nuclear stations still depend on natural water resources although some countries have been experimenting with other substances, such as gas and molten salt.
There is no alternative to nuclear energy. Countries produce more than ever before whereas the quantities of natural resources systematically decrease. Nuclear fission provides energy at low costs and pollute the atmosphere less than traditional coal and oil. As much as it is scary, the 21st century will be the century of nuclear energy.
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