Towards Sustainable Energy: The current Fossil Fuel problem and the prospects of Geothermal and Nuclear power


By Alison Riddell, Steve Ronson, Glenn Counts, Kurt Spenser  


Energy is essential to life.  Without it, many billions of people would be left cold and hungry.  The major source of energy comes from fossil fuels, and the dominant fossil fuels used today by most industrialized and developing countries are oil, coal, and natural gas.  Among these fossil fuels, oil is the most consumed for energy conversion, followed by coal, then natural gas.  In 1997, the world produced approximately 130 quadrillion Btu of energy from oil, 80 quadrillion Btu from coal, and 70 quadrillion Btu from  natural gas. 


                                                                     (Energy Information Administration)




Production of these fossil fuels is expected to rise, approximately doubling the amount of use of each fossil fuel.  As world population continues to grow and the limited amount of fossil fuels begin to diminish, it may not be possible to provide the amount of energy demanded by the world by only using fossil fuels to convert energy.  There are plenty of ways to convert energy without fossil fuels, and many of are being used, but not nearly to their full potential.  Countries must take action to promote a greater use of renewable energy resources, such as geothermal energy or nuclear power,  so that we can be well prepared when the supplies of fossil fuels are not as plentiful as they seem today.

            The fairly low cost of converting natural resources to energy causes most countries to use fossil fuels as their main source of energy, but there is a major problem that arises out of this: natural resources are limited and non-renewable.  There is only so much oil, coal, and natural gas that the earth can hold, and we can not use these resources as if there is an unlimited amount for much longer.  Some estimates say that there may only be as few as 20 years of oil left if the world keeps with the increasing consumption trend before oil prices sharply increase resulting in a possible international economic crisis (EIA).  Prices would go up because of the simple economic model of supply and demand.  There has been an increasing demand for fossil fuels in the past thirty years, and this can be seen by the growing trend of energy produced by all three of the fossil fuels.








                                                            (Energy Information Administration)

As can be seen in this graph, the total production of energy from fossil fuels is expected to increase even more sharply in the next 20 years than in has in the past 30 years.  As the production increases due to a growing trend in consumption of energy, the supply of these fossil fuels will start to diminish.  As, supply goes down and demand goes up, prices will increase dramatically.

            The increasing trend in world energy use can be attributed to two main reasons: a growing world population and developing countries.  The world population has been increasing at a more dramatic rate than it ever has been.  More people means more energy consumption, and more energy consumption, if we stick to fossil fuels as the major resource, means less time until we run out of fossil fuels.  The other contributor to the increasing amount of production of energy is the developing countries.  Because they are in the process of becoming industrialized, they are consuming more energy than industrialized countries; they may have not yet mastered efficiency, resulting in both more consumption and more waste.

                                               (Energy Information Administration)

This graph shows a sharp increase in the production of energy in developing countries, and is projected to increase even more in the next 20 years.  This means that the increase of production for these countries needs to be accounted for in projections on how much time we have until natural resources run out.  While prices of natural resources are expected to stay low over the next few years, if we keep on the trend of increasing global consumption, resources are bound to run out.  The amount of time until this happens depends on efforts from countries to tap into renewable resources.

            Another major reason that it is essential that we begin work immediately on converting energy from renewable resources is the cost to the environment that fossil fuels cost.  The burning of fossil fuels in the conversion to energy creates waste of H2O and CO2.  While CO2 is a natural greenhouse gas, too much of it in the atmosphere has been proven to cause global warming.  Last year, emission of CO2 from fossil fuels was 6.2 billion tons, increasing fourfold from 1950 (Flavin and Dawn, 113). 

                                                                        (Energy Information Administration)

The increase in emissions of CO2 are projected to increase even more dramatically in the next 20 years if we continue to increase the production of energy through the burning of fossil fuels.  The increasing trend of CO2 in the atmosphere overwhelms the natural cycling of carbon by oceans and forests and has brought the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere to 29% above the pre-industrial level.  If the world stays on the current path of increasing emissions, it is possible that global temperature could increase by approximately 1-3.5 degrees Celsius (Schneider, 375).  Because of the complexity of the earth’s weather system, it is hard to predict the effects of the rapid change in the composition of the atmosphere, but some scientists have predicted such consequences as flooded cities, diminished food production, and increased storm damage (Schneider, 375).  Avoiding dangerous climate change will depend in large part on our ability to develop and continue to use renewable energy supplies.

            The solution to the problems of limited fossil fuels and their impact on the environment is to have renewable resources play a larger role in the supply of energy.  Converting sunlight, earth’s heat, wind, and nuclear power into energy could, in the next century, meet most of the world’s energy needs.  Technologies have become available to combine the use of heat and power, providing energy services far more efficiently than fossil fuels.  These technologies are much more clean than burning fossil fuels; the use of them could cut carbon emissions by 60-80% (Flavin and Dawn, 123).  Renewable resources such as geothermal and nuclear energy are clean and nearly inexhaustible.  An effort to move the world in the direction it needs to go in order to slow down the problem of climate change came in December of 1997 when representatives from 160 countries met in Kyoto, Japan to set goals and targets to lower carbon emissions.  Yet many countries, such as the United States, have not ratified the Kyoto Protocol and have continued to use fossil fuels, despite having the technologies to use renewable and clean resources. 

            A major reason for countries not adopting the technologies of these renewable resources is the cost.  While it is almost sad to think that we are too worried about short-term monetary costs to invest in these technologies rather than avoiding the even larger costs that a dramatic climate change or international economic crisis would bring, it is still reality.  Any plant that converts a renewable resource into energy requires a very large initial capital investment.  What most people don’t know, is that once you can get past the initial payment, costs of energy will be almost identical to costs of energy converted from the burning of fossil fuels.  As of now, since there is still what seems to be a plentiful supply of fossil fuels, most countries have been avoiding the monetary cost of investing in these renewable resource plants and continue to get their energy from the burning of fossil fuels.

            There are a couple solutions to increase the incentive of investing in renewable resource plants.  Changes in policy are the fist way to move toward a larger use of renewable resources as the major sources of energy.  It is up to countries to make unilateral moves to create policies that will help move emission levels toward the goals of the Kyoto Protocol and avoid a possible economic crisis.  Greenhouse gas trends can be turned around with surprisingly modest shifts in policy (Flavin and Dawn, 114).  This push to overcome barriers of new technologies must come from the governments of individual countries, for it would become way too political to try to make an international agreement to set policies to overcome these barriers.  One policy option is to adjust fossil fuel prices so that they reflect environmental consequences (Flavin and Dawn, 127).  This would give renewable resources the opportunity to be economically competitive.  If prices of fossil fuels were raised, there would be no disincentive to invest in the renewable resource energy plants.  Another policy option is for the government to provide tax incentives and subsidies for installing equipment and generating electricity.  There are many countries that do this today: Austria, Denmark, France, Germany, Japan, Netherlands, Sweden, and The United States (Flavin and Dawn, 125).  Yet another policy option would be for the country to create set “purchase prices.”  This is where the government creates a law that sets a fixed price at which small renewable energy generators are provided access to the electricity grid (Flavin and Dawn, 126).  This gives renewable resource plants incentive to enter the market since they already have a guarantee that they will have access to the electricity grid, and even at a lower price than other energy plants.  This creates a competitive market atmosphere.  Countries that have adopted this policy include Australia, Austria, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Japan, and The United Kingdom (Flavin and Dawn, 125).

            While it is very difficult to turn scientific evidence and findings into policy because of the uncertainty of science and the short-term consequences of political action, it is time that countries do take action.  There has been overwhelming evidence that the world will run out of natural resources and that the burning of fossil fuels has, and will continue to cause degradation to our environment.  We do not have the luxury of ignoring or avoiding the problems anymore.  It is essential that governments create policy to stimulate the larger use of renewable resources.  Two major renewable resources that have the potential to play a large role in the future of the world’s energy are geothermal and nuclear power.

Geothermal energy is a clean and inexpensive form of energy used by many countries around the world.  Although the technology used in tapping geothermal resources has only been available within the past few decades, other countries such as the United States are already lagging behind the rest of the world in tapping their geothermal resources.  The methods of extracting geothermal energy are both creative and interesting.  The methods use nature’s most abundant substance, water, to bring the energy from within the earth to the surface.  Most people know very little about the potential of this great form of energy because of the fairly recent birth of geothermal technology (less than one-hundred years ago) and continual development.  This “ground-breaking” form of energy’s mechanics has many effects on the community, and its potential indicates that it is over all the best form of energy available.

            Geothermal energy is the heat energy that is found beneath the earth’s crust in the mantle layer.  The earth is made up of four primary layers; the crust (6-40 miles), the mantle (1800miles), the outer core (1375 miles), and the inner core (1750 miles) (Grolier).  The molten interior contains an unimaginable amount of thermal energy.  The temperature of the mantle varies from 1,560 to 2,280 degrees Fahrenheit (Grolier).  The fact that the crust has varying thickness of 6 to 40 miles separates geothermally active areas from non-active ones.  The areas where the crust is thinnest are considered geothermally active because the magma or molten rock, of the mantle is so close to the surface.  Some geothermal energy finds its way up to the surface of these active areas through volcanoes, geysers, hot springs, and human consumption, but the overall temperature within the earth remains relatively constant.  Scientists have calculated that without a driving force the interior of the earth would have cooled and solidified millions of years ago.  These scientists attribute the longevity of the earth’s interior heat and molten state to the radioactive decay of Uranium “234-235”, which have half-lives[1] of 4.5 billion years and 710 million years respectively (Wehlage 10).  Geothermal energy therefore represents a potentially inexhaustible source of energy.  The difficulty lies in extracting the energy from beneath the earth’s crust. 

            There are two primary methods in which the earth’s natural heat can be extracted.  The method used depends on the existence and/or availability of ground water in the area where the magma is near the surface.  If there is an ample supply of ground water near the hot site, a well is dug to the ground water level.  The ground water circulates through minute cracks in the rocks at a temperature ranging from 300 to more than 700 degrees Fahrenheit but is not in the form of gas because of the extreme pressure (see illus. 1).



This super-heated water is brought up through the well under pressure and is “flashed” into steam in special vessels by the release of pressure.  From here, there are two options for the use of the steam:

1.      As a means to power an electrical generator.

2.      As a direct-heat application.

If the newly formed steam is to be used as a means to power an electrical generator then it is routed to a turbine engine, which turns a generator.  The steam and turbine interact in a wind/windmill manner.  The spinning turbine on the generator creates electricity.  If the newly formed steam is used as a direct-heat application, it is fed to a heat exchanger where it heats an external water source through conduction (IGA 3).  The heated water from the output side of the heat exchanger is used for heating homes, greenhouses, pools, fish farms, and soil.  The spent geothermal ground water is injected back into the peripheral parts of the reservoir to help maintain reservoir pressure (IGA 1).

            If no ground water is present in the area, a different approach is used.  Two wells are dug in the form of a closed loop.  The rocks at the bottom of the loop are heated by the magma to about 464 degrees Fahrenheit (Grolier) (see illus. 2).  Cold water is forced into one end of the loop under very high pressure by a special pump.  This opens minute fractures in the walls of the well, increasing the hot surface area and creating a “heat reservoir.”

            The heated-pressurized water, now almost 400 degrees Fahrenheit shoots up the other end of the well and is “flashed” into steam in special vessels by the release of pressure (Grolier) (see illus. 3).  From this point on the options and procedures are the same as those for where ground water is present.

                                                                                                (illus 3)

Geothermal engineers have discovered that there are many common problems accompanying these techniques used in extracting heat energy.  Besides the obvious dangers of working with extremely hot materials there are many difficulties that engineers run into that early geothermal engineer couldn’t have predicted would play a part in the process.  One of the main problems that geothermal engineers run into is that some thermal fluids are highly corrosive and require the use of special steel casings for the vessels and pipes.  If the fluid is too corrosive, a well or even perhaps a entire site may have to be abandoned (Armstead 79).  Natural disasters can also pose problems for geothermal engineers.  Geothermal plants are usually near active volcanoes.  Eruptions have destroyed equipment and/or entire facilities.  In Iceland, a plant in the city of Krafla ahs been affected by nine volcanic eruptions but still remains open (IGA 1).  Nature, however, is no the only problem for geothermal engineers.  Sometimes the engineers can bring the difficulties upon themselves.  Drilling into thin ground can cause earthquakes.  The earthquakes often open up direct passages to the mantle and allow for volcanic gasses to escape into the wells and in turn into the receiving vessels.  These volcanic gasses can cause brine contamination, scaling, and corrosion (IGA 1).  Geothermal engineers are constantly exploring new ways to solve such problems.  It is these efforts that drive the evolution of geothermal technology.

            Finally, one of the most common, yet most easily solved problems faced by geothermal engineers is that some geothermal systems produce water that just is not hot enough upon flash vaporization to produce sufficient steam (below 300 degrees Fahrenheit).  This is either because the distance from the ground water to the magma is to great or the well is too deep to bring up the water before it loses heat.  In this case a “binary plant” is built (see illus. 4).

                                                                                                (Illus. 4)

  In a binary plant, the heated geothermal water is used to heat a working fluid that boils and vaporizes at a lower temperature and pressure than water (CREST 1).  The vapors from the working fluid turn the turbine to generate electricity as discussed earlier.  In this two-step (binary) process, the geothermal water and the secondary fluid are kept separate.  The secondary fluid flows around a closed loop and is used over and over again (CREST 1).  Almost all of these creative techniques and technology, such as using steam to power a generator and heat conduction methods, were available many years prior to the first successful utilization of geothermal energy.  Advances in drilling technology were the stepping stones that allowed people to gain access to geothermal energy from areas where it was previously unattainable.

            Earlier in this paper the digging of wells through drilling was passed off as one of the many steps in the extracting process, but it is much more complicated than that.  First, the construction crew must build a concrete cellar to support the weight of the drilling rig.  The cellars are usually 10x8x10 feet.  The crew then builds the structure of the drill around the cellar (Armstead 80).  The crew then installs high quality steel casings down into the length of the well.  The casings overlap each other like a hollow TV antenna extending downward.  These casings are necessary to counter the extreme pressure of the water and the lack thereof near the surface (Armstead 84).  Acid-proof steel casings are necessary in areas with corrosive water to assure the casings do not corrode (Armstead 85).  The drill stem is lowered down by a pulley into the tunnel and a pump forces cold mud down to the drill site.  The mud lubricates the drill bit and drill stem, washes away rock cuttings from the tunnel, prevents the walls from caving in, and cools the surrounding ground.  The mud then circulates back up to the surface, is filtered of all the rock chips, cooled down, and sent back down the well (Armstead 81) (see illus. 5). 

                                                                                                                        Illus. 5



Geothermal power plants have minimal impact on the environment with respect to modern emissions controls. The plants release little or no carbon dioxide. In fact, electricity produced from geothermal resources in the United States displaces the emission of 22 million tons of carbon dioxide, 200 thousand tons of sulfur dioxide, 80 thousand tons of nitrogen oxides, and 110 thousand tons of particulate matter every year compared with production of the same amount of electricity from conventional coal-fired plants (DOE).  Currently there are many known areas of geothermal activity in the U.S. but few have been utilized.  Current areas in use are Geyserville, CA and Los Alamos, NM.  These sites are producing a total of 2,500 megawatts of electricity (CREST 1).  According tot he U.S. Energy Information Agency, the known geothermal resources in the U.S. have the potential to produce 49,000 megawatts of geothermal electricity by the year 2030 if development were to begin immediately (CREST 1).  For this to occur, the U.S. government would have to actively promote the exploration of possible geothermal sites as well as fund the building of plants in known geothermally active areas.  The problem is that the government refuses to fund these explorations and the budgets to purchase the necessary technology (IGA 1).. Geothermal power plants are very reliable when compared to conventional power plants. For example, new steam plants at Geyserville are operable more than 99% of the time. Taken as a group, geothermal power plants are operational  95% of the time or more, compared to 60%-70% for coal and nuclear plants. In addition, the capacity factor of geothermal power plants is highest among all types of power plants. Capacity factor is the amount of energy actually produced per year in kilowatt-hours (kWh) compared with the amount that could be produced if the plant operated continuously at full capacity.

In some parts of the world, geothermal systems are cost competitive with conventional energy sources such as coal and oil. It is anticipated that as technology improves, the cost of generating geothermal energy will decrease. Today's cost of electricity from typical geothermal systems ranges from $0.05-$0.08/kWh (DOE). Because they are abundant in the United States, geothermal resources offer a large source of secure energy to the U.S. Geothermal electricity production can help reduce the need for oil imports, reducing the trade deficit and adding jobs to the U.S. economy. Before geothermal electricity is considered a key element of the U.S. energy infrastructure, it must become cost competitive with traditional forms of energy. Toward that end, the geothermal industry, with assistance from the Department of Energy, is working to achieve a geothermal-energy life-cycle cost of electricity of $0.03/kWh. It is anticipated that costs in this range will result in about 15,000 MW of new capacity installed by U.S. firms within the following ten years (DOE). Reserves of geothermal energy in the United States are difficult to quantify because much exploration remains to be done. However, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) estimates that geothermal energy from identified U.S. geothermal resources could supply thousands of megawatts more power than current production. In addition, USGS estimates that five times that amount may be available from undiscovered geothermal resources in the United States (DOE).   Many countries such as Iceland, and the Philippines are developing their geothermal resources at a rate to 50% per year while the U.S. is at a stand still.  It is up to the U.S. government to take the initiative necessary to make geothermal energy a serious factor in U.S. energy consumption.

The natural resources that we as humans have come to know and love are running out.  Fossil fuels are excellent sources of energy and have been for decades, but increased use and a growing global population are sucking this energy source dry.  Low costs of fossil fuels are inspiring a much greater use of the products that are made from them, including electrical power.  Yet little is thought about the environment when these petroleum products are used so frequently.  Money still drives the world and it is the idea of making profits and keeping costs down that makes people forget about the environment.  Eventually the trade-off will come, however, and the world will have to make a choice, our pocket or our world, and we can only hope that people choose the world.  With the harm of fossil fuels on our environment and the need for alternative power sources, nuclear energy can be a reliable means of supplying the world with electricity in a manner that is environmentally friendly. 

            Renewable alternative energy sources are a fantastic means of supplying electricity with little consequence to the environment.  Many renewable energy sources such as geothermal, hydroelectric, wind, and solar power produce extremely little or no harmful effects upon the environment.  Location is the major problem of these sources, however.  In order to capture electricity from these renewable energy sources, the generating plant must be located near thermally active areas such as volcanoes for geothermal, or a large flowing river for hydroelectric.  Not all cities are located near thermally active areas such as volcanoes for geothermal, or a large flowing river for hydroelectric.  Cities that are not located next to these sources of possible power must look to other sources, which often include fossil fuels such as coal and oil.

            However fossil fuels are not the only alternatives to renewable energy when these sources are not available.  Nuclear energy only requires the land and capital investment involved for building a power plant and it can be built almost anywhere.  In many cases, cities are finding that nuclear power is a better source of energy than others, and there are a few reasons why.

There are several requirements that a city’s power supply must meet in order for it to be a logical choice to light up a city.   According to Nuclear Electricity, Fifth Edition Jan 1999 by the Uranium Information Centre Ltd., the desirable requirements are:


·                    It should be relatively cheap, giving low-cost power.

·                    Unless it can be supplied from a source very close to the power station it must be a concentrated source of energy, which can therefore be economically transported and readily stockpiled.

·                    It should have regard to the scarcity of the resource and alternative valued applications.

·                    Wastes should be manageable, so that they produces a minimum of pollution and environmental disturbance, including long-term global warming effect.

·                    It must be safe both in routine operation and regarding possible accident scenarios.


In many countries, such as the United States, coal meets these requirements and is used as the primary source of fuel for electricity generation.  It currently supplies 39% of the world’s electricity (Uranium Information Centre).  Yet there are some very important characteristics of coal that have it pushing the limits of these requirements, such as producing a minimum of pollution and being supplied close to the power station to avoid transportation costs.  For some cities, not having a supply of coal nearby can be like not having a river to dam up.  It can be very costly to transport many tons of coal to the power plant, not to mention how costly to the world it can be to the atmosphere. 

            Nuclear power outperforms coal by quite a bit in these two areas.  The fuel involved to produce power in a power plant is incredibly small when it is in its ready state.  In order to provide enough power for a year for an average person in Japan, one must burn three tons of coal.  For the same amount of power, between 30 kg and 70 kg of Uranium must be mined to collect about 230 grams of U-235, the fissile isotope of Uranium.    Saying 230 grams of fuel is much less than three tons is quite an understatement, as it would be to say that Nuclear power produces less waste than a coal plant.  (See figure 1)

The smaller fuel means much smaller wastes and therefore less pollution. The waste produced in a nuclear power plant depends on what kind of reactor it has.  If it is a newer Light Water Reactor, then the 230 grams of Uranium-235 is enriched to 30 grams of highly enriched U-235, where once it is used, it can be re-enriched and used again, with about 20 ml of waste fluid each time.


Figure 1                                  Source: Nuclear Electricity (Fifth Edition, Jan 1999)


Coal produces several hundred kilograms of solid waste in the form of ash, as well as eight tons of Carbon Dioxide and other harmful gasses released into our atmosphere.  Creating energy from nuclear power creates no Carbon Dioxide to be released into our atmosphere.  An estimated 1.7 to 3.9 billion tons of CO2 have been prevented from entering the atmosphere between 1985 and 1994 by the use of Nuclear Power plants rather than fossil fuel plants.  (EIA/DOE)

            Smaller fuel also means much smaller transportation costs to get it to the power plant.  Millions of tons of coal must be transported from its source to the plant powering a nearby city.  This can fill up many train-loads and that can cost a lot of money.  Yet with nuclear power, transportation costs can be greatly reduced.  The power plant does not have to be near a Uranium mine to be cost efficient, because the fuel can be brought in a highly concentrated form, where several kilograms of U-235 can power a city for months.

            With all these benefits of nuclear power, one might think that countries of the world would be implementing nuclear power plants to solve their electricity needs.  But unfortunately, this is not the case.  Projections of Nuclear capacities of countries from now until the year 2020 show a general trend of declining use instead of increasing.  This decline is primarily due to countries that have a large capacity for nuclear power turning away from nuclear energy and using coal and natural gas, which is inexpensive and easier to use at this time.  These countries include the United States and Western Europe, which have led the world in nuclear energy for quite a while.  Figure 2 shows these projections for the next twenty years. 

            This trend of declining use of nuclear power in the next 20 years is due to the stable fossil fuel supply during this time.  Prices will probably increase, but not enough to completely stop using fossil fuels as sources of power.  Natural gas reserves are now being increasingly used as a power source, and its supply is not expected to decline in the next twenty years.  Natural gas is a much cleaner source of fuel, however as oil reserves are depleted, natural gas may pick up the slack in transportation needs. 




Figure 2

Source: EIA/DOE

Fortunately, there appears to be an upward trend in the use of nuclear power in the Far East, where economic growth is rapidly taking place.  This could be due to the number of people that need to be supplied with power in the Far East, such as the populations of China and India.  These countries may find that in order to supply their massive populations with power it would take too much coal to transport or too much pollution would be created by burning it.  Most likely they will turn to both coal and nuclear energy to supply their power, to be most cost effective. 

            To say that nuclear power has no wastes would not be true, but its wastes are almost negligible when compared to how much there is and where it goes.  A nuclear power plant generates about one cubic meter of waste a year.  This waste is radioactive and must be kept away from people, which can be done by burying the wastes in special containers in unpopulated areas of the earth (McCarthy).  An idea for storing the United States’ nuclear wastes is to put them underground in the same place used for nuclear weapons testing.  This seems like a logical choice and solution to the radioactive waste problem caused by nuclear power.  Compare one cubic meter of wastes for a nuclear power plant to generate electricity for an entire year vs. the millions of tons of harmful airborne gasses released into the atmosphere by burning coal, and the choice seems obvious. 

            The future for nuclear power right now seems uncertain, with many nuclear reactors coming off line in the future and not being updated to produce power again.  Yet nuclear power will not die, and with proper implementation it can thrive.  Nuclear power is not expected to do much in the western world for the next twenty years, almost seeming to be “phased out.”  I believe this will not be the future for nuclear power after this period, however.  As technology improves, nuclear power plants can be simpler and less expensive to build, which is one of the main difficulties with nuclear power right now.  With a lower capital investment, more cities will look to nuclear energy as their power source. 

            Not only will lower capital investments increase the number of nuclear power plants, but rising fossil fuel prices will force cities to turn to an alternate fuel as well.  Uranium is abundant and its price will be stable for centuries to come, making it a logical choice.  Coal reserves have the potential to last for several more centuries, but transportation costs and an environmentally aware world community frowning on coal’s pollution will force it to give way to Uranium. 

            However we do not have to wait twenty or thirty years for money to dictate the proper time for nuclear power to come of age.  Changes in public awareness about the dangers of nuclear energy can help overcome the fears that many people have about nuclear energy.  More research and development of nuclear power can result in cost efficient plants before there is a fossil fuel shortage, with the environment and the consumers being winners.  The United States could lead the way towards a more environmentally safe world by leading the charge to bring nuclear power back, as well as help other developing countries use nuclear power as they grow instead of fossil fuels, which can effect us all.  The world gets smaller every day, and different countries’ actions are increasingly affecting others.  As one global community, we must look out for each other and the planet we all live on.  Sometimes there just must be a leader.

Nuclear power has the potential to become  a clean  reliable, and limitless supply of energy for the entire.  Yet as pointed out, estimates show that nuclear power accounts for approximately a mere six to seven percent of the world’s energy output, or twenty four quadrillion  Btu’s. Also, current estimates  have  revealed that the role of nuclear power  will probably decline throughout the world, especially in the United States and Western Europe, over the next twenty years. Why is this?  First, the spread of nuclear energy and technology worldwide raises concerns over the proliferation of nuclear weapons.  Second, the relationship between nuclear energy and weapons of mass destruction, and disasters at Chernobyl and other sites have  heightened public awareness of the dangers of nuclear power in industrialized countries.  The expansion of nuclear power is being held back by policy and politics, not facts.

To understand these issues it is first necessary  to understand   the nuclear  fuel cycle. Fissile materials that can be used to create nuclear weapons are produced in the regular fuel cycle of nuclear power reactors. These materials exist at various points along the fuel cycle and there are several different possible points of diversion depending on the specific reactor process.  Nuclear energy is dependent on the use of a radioactive isotope of either Uranium or Plutonium with Uranium being most common.  Uranium must be mined from the Earth,  but is not useful in its raw state.  The major energy source used in most commercial reactors is U-235, which comprises only 0.71 percent of natural Uranium.   Starting with this ordinary Uranium, there are a number of different routes to power generation, and to weapons fabrication.  Heavy Water and graphite moderated reactors can operate using ordinary Uranium enriched by only a fraction; other processes such as light water reactors which are most common today, must use an enrichment process to  dramatically increase the U-235 levels. (Greenwood, Rathjens and Ruina, p.7) 

This enrichment process is the first possible point where weapons grade material can cycled off from a power generation program.  Uranium in its natural state is enriched so that it becomes up to 90 percent U-235.  This Uranium is very high quality in terms of radioactivity and can be used for explosives as well as energy production. In the normal energy fuel cycle,  the enriched Uranium is then transported to a fuel fabrication facility.  At this point densely packed nuclear fuel is made from the Uranium in the form of powder, mixed and molded into rods,  or fuel pellets which are encased in a metal tubing creating a rod. The specific form of the fuel depends on the type of the reactor. This fuel is then taken to a reactor site where energy, usually to be converted to electricity is produced.

During reactor operation the nuclear fuel is bombarded by subatomic particles.  This creates a chain reaction within the dense nuclear fuel releasing a tremendous amount of energy.  During this process, Uranium 238 is converted to Plutonium 239 and 240 through neutron capture and beta decay.  After removal from the reactor core, the spent fuel and by products are placed into storage for 140-180 days until the levels of radioactivity return to manageable levels.  It can then be sent to a reprocessing or storage facility.

Reprocessing is the other site along the nuclear fuel cycle sensitive to weapons manufacture.  At fuel reprocessing plants, spent fuel is separated into fission products including Actinides, Uranium and Plutonium.  The Uranium is sent back to the enrichment plant, and the Plutonium is fabricated into fuel for Breeder Reactors.  The Plutonium manufactured at the reprocessing plant can be made into weapons grade material as well as fuel for Breeder Reactors. The Uranium sent to the enrichment facility is subject to the same process discussed earlier. 

With new technologies and fuel cycle design, it is possible to lessen the intensity of the relationship between nuclear energy technology and nuclear weapons, but impossible to break it. Producing weapons grade materials in energy related facilities, however is by no means common or easy.  Facilities designed specifically for producing weapons grade materials would be cheaper, simpler, more efficient and straightforward for a weapons program than the commercial reactor cycle. Also, practically all nuclear facilities are subject to inspection by the International Atomic Energy Agency. Because of the relative simplicity of weapons programs compared with that of energy and all the regulations that are associated with it, it is not the logical or normal order of things for a weapons program to arise out an energy program. 

Currently, thirty countries have nuclear reactors and many more have some nuclear facilities.  Of those thirty countries and the entire world, only eight  are known to have nuclear weapons.  A dozen more have had nuclear weapons programs in the past and have since abandoned them.  Out of all of the countries with nuclear weapons programs past and present, none of them used power reactors to obtain their weapons grade fissile material.  It is clear that while there are connections between nuclear weapons and energy, the decision to acquire nuclear weapons has not been a result of or even paced by technical opportunity from a nuclear power program. (May, 1/23/99)

The non-proliferation of  nuclear weapons is a highly related but separate issue from nuclear energy.  For non-proliferation to be successful, nuclear energy does not need to be sacrificed.  The International Atomic Energy Agency, United Nations and Non-Proliferation treaty need to be supported unilaterally on issues of nuclear energy.  If progress can be made in these areas, policy makers and the public will soon see that while nuclear energy must be safeguarded, it is a relatively small part of the nuclear security dilemma when examining how major a role it could play in developing clean sustainable energy.

After examining the current fossil fuel situation, it also becomes clear that the United States and Western Europe must take a leadership role in the spread and safeguarding of nuclear technology.  When it comes to fossil fuels, the United States is currently enjoying a short-lived luxury.  The United States is the only country in the world which could effectively assure or interrupt the flow of oil from overseas.  Combined with our own large fossil fuel resources, and technologies, the United States experiences far less of security dilemma and dependence on outside sources than any other country in the world.  This is a table demonstrating this point on the topic of oil and the Middle East.





Dependence of Energy Coalition Members on Middle East Oil by%


United States

Western Europe


Dependence on oil as a share of all industrial energy forms




Fraction of oil from imports




Fraction of imports from Middle East




Overall dependence on Middle East  for industrial energy




From British Petroleum, Statistical Review of World Energy, June 1990.(Holden,p19)


            Simply because the United States depends less on foreign sources for fossil fuels and energy does not mean that it should turn a blind eye to nuclear energy and other alternatives.  Outside the countries in the table, the dependence on foreign sources of fossil fuels is far more dramatic.  Besides the obvious environmental issues at hand, this causes more international security issues.  If the United States would take a leadership and proactive position when it comes to nuclear power and other alternatives, these issues could be alleviated. 

            In a country where it is highly possible to move toward clean energy sources, more so than almost all other industrialized countries, carbon emissions percapita in the United States are the highest in the world.  This is because of public misconception, and policies influenced by regional and economic luxuries.  Levelized costs of nuclear energy are comparable to fossil fuels after initial investment of technology.  The Health and safety record of the nuclear industry is better than that of fossil fuels, and accidents have not been nearly as disastrous as is assumed.  The accident at Three Mile Island for example, registered virtually no background noise from radioactivity.  It is clear that anxieties and fears associated with nuclear energy are  not supported by the facts. (May, 1/23/99)

            The growing energy needs in East Asia will soon bring the issues of nuclear technology and alternative energies to the fore.  Increased dependence on fossil fuels is not feasible on a world wide basis due to the limited supply and cost to the environment.  East Asian countries should be encouraged and aided in their efforts to establish expanded nuclear energy programs.  This can only occur safely with the leadership of the United States and Western Europe.  For this to happen, nuclear energy programs in our own countries must first be supported and accelerated not moved away from. 

            Only with the support of research  and development, education, and public discussion, will alternative energy become a reality.  There is a vast ,clean, and untapped resource at our fingertips.  The economics and simplicity of fossil fuels should not blind us to the fact that they are a severely limited resource, and destroy  our environment.  With the support of resources such as geothermal and nuclear energy, we can move towards a sustainable world.

[1] half-life: The time it takes for one half the mass of a radioactive substance to decay.