Power Struggles: Fossil Fuels vs. Nuclear Energy
07.02.19 | Tuesday | Nofit Amir
Both fossil fuel and nuclear energy help us meet our energy needs, yet both often give rise to criticism. Looking at the facts presents a complex picture that precludes staunch favoritism.
Fossil fuels – petroleum, coal, and natural gas – originate from large reserves of ancient organisms buried in the ground for millions of years.
Though fossil fuels are continually being formed via natural processes, they are considered non-renewable resources since they take millions of years to form and the known viable reserves are being depleted much faster than new ones are being made.
In addition, since the main building blocks of life are carbon and oxygen, burning fossil fuels for energy releases large amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere – many billions of tons more than the atmosphere can absorb, raising concerns of its greenhouse effect and global warming.
Added to that are the daily health consequences of fossil fuel use: Inhaling the pollution resulting from its use may cause acute respiratory illness, aggravated asthma, chronic bronchitis, heart disease and decreased lung function. Coal and oil release sulfur dioxide gas when they burn causes breathing problems as well as acid rain. According to scientific studies, outdoor air pollution from the burning of fossil fuels causes over 3.5 million deaths worldwide per year.
Its upsides are wide availability (in the near future) and the relatively simple, low-tech infrastructure that is required.
Nuclear energy is also mined from underground reserves – mainly consisting of uranium and plutonium. Thus it is also considered a non-renewable resource of energy and care has to be taken that reserves are not depleted. In contrast to fossil fuel, its production entails significantly lower release of pollutants and carbon dioxide into the atmosphere – thus it is termed clean and environment-friendly. Of course, if an accident occurs – such as the accidents in Chernobyl and Fukushima, it has adverse health effects and contaminates the environment. Yet the number who have died due to nuclear disaster, including from radiation-related cancer many years after the event, is dwarfed by those dying from the health consequences of fossil fuels. This includes Hiroshima and Nagasaki. That said, nuclear energy results in nuclear waste, while fossil fuels result in waste that is not radioactive, and thus less enduring.
The graph below, from a NASA study, shows the number of deaths, in millions, prevented due to nuclear energy partially replacing fossil fuel.
With renewable resources providing but a small fraction of the world’s energy needs, the choice between fossil fuels and nuclear energy is not easy. However, the benefit of saving the lives of millions of people who die from fossil fuel-related air pollution should be taken seriously.