The use of nuclear energy has continued to grow over the years despite all of the divided opinions across the globe. Nuclear energy technology started making advances after the discovery of the atom, a feat credited to the Greeks and the follow up work of scientists who furthered this research in the 18th and 19th century, as they were able to build on the idea having concluded that atoms had large quantities of energy in them. Renewed interest in nuclear energy would pick up again during the Second World War, at a time when research on nuclear materials mainly focused on the development of defense weapons. This would be followed by more vigorous research whose main purpose was to find peaceful applications of nuclear technology, such as the production of electricity. By 1934, the discovery of nuclear fission technology had been made, and by 1942, the first project that focused on the development of the first nuclear reactor was initiated (None, 2015). After the war, the United States government embraced the development of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. The United States Congress, in 1946, created the Atomic Energy Commission, which authorized the construction of the Experimental Breeder Reactor 1, which in December of 1951 became the first nuclear reactor to generate electricity (None, 2015). Nuclear energy has been used to produce electricity among other utilities and with it has come political, economic, environmental and even social consequences.
To understand the overall impact of nuclear energy as a source of electricity, we have to look back at the history of the generation of electricity. It has been a result of numerous collaborative efforts coupled with a lot of technological changes to get to where we are today. The first electric generators were galvanic cells, and they generated what was known as direct electrical voltages, which went on until the year 1889, when there was a breakthrough in research and the Thury system that was able to produce 4.65 megawatts transmitted at 57.6 kilovolts, over a distance of 180 kilometers was introduced. This was followed by the induction polyphase electric motor theory, which was majorly used in 1889. Later, this would be developed into the first alternating current system, which was introduced by Tesla in 1891 into the United States. Power generation moved away from hydroelectric projects to turbo generators (Battaglin and Barreto, 2013). From there we see the creation of the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), which authorized the construction of the Experimental Breeder Reactor 1 which in December 1951, became the first nuclear reactor to generate electricity (None, 2015). From this point on, Alan Roberts in his article titled The Politics of Nuclear Power in 1976 would state, The leading capitalist countries intend to generate most of their electrical power by nuclear means before the turn of the century, necessitating an unprecedented speed of construction. Over the next decade alone, the US government hopes to see nuclear capacity increased eightfold; France and Japan aim at roughly fifteen-fold growth.
Apart from its ability to provide electric energy, the first significant impact nuclear energy had was on the political and military front. Before the introduction of nuclear weapons, wars were mainly fought with what was considered conventional weapons of warfare which at the time included chemical weapons such as the poison gas (Jones, 2014), guns, flamethrowers, trench mortars, artillery, the battle tank and aircraft, among others (Gabriel and Metz, 1992). The military was well trained in the use of these weapons, and every country involved in war sought to beat the other through numbers, skills, tactics, and the available conventional armaments. Even though these weapons were useful in battle, most of them could only cover limited areas and therefore made it harder for soldiers to cover long distances while still relying on them for personal protection. In order to gain military superiority and dominate perceived enemies, technologically advanced countries began the rush to establish superior weapons and one way to achieve this was to become the first to get their hands on a nuclear weapon.
This is what led to the Manhattan project, spearheaded by J. Robert Oppenheimer. The project would result in the production of the atomic bomb code named Fat Man, a plutonium implosion bomb. From that point on nuclear energy would change how we viewed military superiority and the politics of war. Atomic bombs have been credited with causing the worst kind of wartime destruction ever seen in human history, and were only used once in the case of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan (Gabriel and Metz, 1992). The introduction of the atomic bomb, which had been directly derived from the technology used in nuclear energy, had made it possible for the destruction of large areas within a short amount of time. Their utility would further be complemented by use of aircraft in war, where bombs would be mounted to a plane and then dropped on predefined targets. Following shock and awe of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, governments continued to use nuclear weapons as deterrents, and in some cases, used them to intimidate others, something that has worked to advance their military might and political clout across the globe. An excellent example of this eventuality was seen during the Cold War and it remains true to date, with countries possessing nuclear weapons continuing to dominate the rest of the world politically and militarily.
On the economic front, nuclear energy has been able to achieve a lot. As the rate of global energy consumption continues to increase, the planet’s declining levels of natural gas and oil have become a matter of concern. Most of the activities that require power have been supplied through natural gas and oil, from running cars to lighting and heating. After those, the other obvious solution is the use of coal, which has also been known to contribute enormously to global warming (Comby, 2015). In addition, the materials being used by the world today to produce energy, mainly oil and coal, are not readily available everywhere and will eventually face extinction. The introduction of nuclear energy contributed an additional large-scale energy source to the world’s energy supply mix, which helped provide price stability. The availability and use of this additional source reduced demand pressures on the fuels it displaced and led to future prices being lower than they would have been otherwise (“An analysis of principal nuclear issues” 1993).
On the environmental front, the world’s dependency on fossil fuels is a sure way to produce emissions that contribute to global warming; on the other hand, nuclear energy is clean, in that it produces no carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, or nitrogen oxide footprint (Comby, 2015). Nuclear energy has also been scientifically proven and certified as a leading source of clean energy, and this is perhaps one of the biggest reasons behind the campaign for its acceptance. The fact that a small amount of uranium can run a nuclear power plant while still maintaining its ability to produce mass amounts of energy gives it an added benefit. Another important aspect is the fact that uranium and even thorium, which is considered a viable alternative and in future should also be able to be used to generate nuclear energy, are readily available in the earth’s crust, unlike oil and natural gas (Comby, 2015). For this reason, alongside ensuring that the planet has sources from which it can generate energy and these sources do not destroy life on the planet, nuclear energy is a considerably better option compared to conventional methods of energy production.
As this technology evolves, it will continue to accord the world more social possibilities in areas such as medicine. Medical application of nuclear technology, which is a specialized branch of nuclear energy study, has had tremendous success. Many people are aware of the wide use of radiation and radioisotopes in medicine, particularly for diagnosis and treatment of various medical conditions. A new field is targeted alpha therapy (TAT) or alpha radioimmunotherapy, especially for the control of dispersed cancers. TAT using lead-212 is increasingly important for treating pancreatic, ovarian, and melanoma cancers. (“Radioisotopes in Medicine” 2018).
Even with the aforementioned benefits, there are social groups who have objected to the adoption of this alternative. First, these groups are worried about the safety implications of the nuclear power plants being established within their environment. In what has been called the nuclear insecurity, Pearce explains the nature of the threat caused by nuclear power plants to everyday life and how this brews controversy amongst the communities that live near them (Pearce, 2012). This insecurity is attributed to the occurrence of nuclear accidents within these power plants. A good case that has been consistently brought up is the Chernobyl accident. The accident caused the largest, uncontrolled radioactive release into the environment ever recorded for any civilian operation, and large quantities of radioactive substances were released into the air for about 10 days. This caused severe social and economic disruption for large populations in Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine. Two radionuclides, the short-lived iodine-131 and the long-lived caesium-137, were particularly to blame for the radiation dose they delivered to members of the public (“Chernobyl Accident 1986” 2018).
Individual studies have suggested that one way to increase the public acceptance of nuclear energy is to employ locals within the nuclear power plants, yet, these nuclear plants have been known to pose a threat to their workers (Pearce, 2012). A general reaction towards an increased number of nuclear plants within areas of a population is a resistance by the people occupying these areas (Pearce, 2012). Therefore, the idea of the establishment of nuclear plants continually has to grapple with the issue of acceptance, especially in countries that have experienced nuclear problems before. This is considered one of its most significant sociocultural issues surrounding nuclear energy to date.
Besides this, there is the realization that even though nuclear energy does not give off emissions like those produced by fossil fuels, it still has byproducts that cause environmental and social concern. One of the externalities realized through the establishment of nuclear energy plants is the need for mining processes, as well as mining spaces. First, the mining process to acquire uranium, either mined on the surface or underground, causes substantial damage on the existing ecosystem as well as the waterways around the mining areas (Pearce, 2012). It is also important to note that most nuclear plants have to be constructed near natural water bodies such as lakes, rivers, and oceans, since the nuclear reactors require a large amount of water to cool them and absorb the excess heat that is produced in the process (Pearce, 2012). This water is then channeled back into local ecosystems, an activity that may cause thermal pollution and endanger local aquatic life (Pearce, 2012). Secondly, the gases involved in the decomposition of materials present in areas of uranium mining have been found to contribute to the development of lung cancer (Cathy and Harvey, 2009). The risks are not only environmental, but also social, as they pose serious health concerns and are nowhere near being solved.
While the constant production of radioactive material takes precedence on the list of the most threatening aspects of nuclear energy, the handling of the nuclear waste emitted in the process of production of energy is one that has attracted social and political interest. The production of nuclear energy allows the producers to be in possession of radioactive materials, such as plutonium, which has been pointed out as one of the biggest threats of national security (Roberts, 1976). Perhaps the politics that surround the issue of the radioactive materials retrieved from the production of nuclear energy is the reason why many countries today do not explore this as an option to supplement their sources of power. Such radioactive material is continuously being considered a threat, especially when warring countries both have access to radioactive waste material. In many capitalist establishments, the political stance on the use of nuclear energy is often to produce the energy and impose strict access rules for those who interact with materials that may compromise national security.
The technological advancement of nuclear energy has taken time to get to where it is. Its growth has exposed humanity to new possibilities, both positive and negative, and this will remain true as long as nuclear materials and associated technology remain a viable option. The politics surrounding nuclear technology, especially nuclear weapons, will only get more complex given the state of the world right now. High-risk countries such as Iran and North Korea remain quite determined to get their hands on this technology, despite the rest of the world actively trying to dissuade them from it. Research into nuclear energy will only continue to grow and find more use, and the potential to apply these advances into beneficial applications is what will determine if nuclear energy serves society or eventually destroys it.
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