Comparing nuclear energy with classic technologies is like comparing a modern airplane with a car. When something bad happens everybody hears about it and you have many casualties at such an event. But with a car you might have several accidents with one to four injured or dead passengers. When you summarize all this, flying by airplane is much more efficient, faster and safer.
It is the same with nuclear plants and coal-fired plants. One kilogram of uranium 235 gives the same energy as approximately three million kilograms of coal. This may vary depending on coal quality and the ratio is more often better for uranium. Let us see what happens during the production and combustion of coal. In order to produce a large amount of coal you need to completely destroy great areas, that had bad luck to be rich with coal. To produce uranium 235 that gives same amount of energy, you need to dig and process, compared to this, several thousand times smaller amounts of ground. Coal contains many impurities that are concentrating during combustion and afterwards in the form of ash can be inhaled or can enter the biosphera and human body in some other way. Its impurities range from trace quantities of many metals, including radioactive uranium and thorium, to much larger quantities of silicium, aluminium and iron to still larger quantities of impurities such as sulphur. Products of coal combustion include oxides of carbon, nitrogen, and sulphur, carcinogenic and mutagenic substances, oxides of silicon, aluminium, iron, calcium, magnesium, titanium, sodium, potassium, arsenic, mercury, plus thorium, uranium and radioactive isotope of potassium in small concentrations. In coal you have from 1-5% of sulphur which afterwards results in acid rains. An enormous amount of CO2 after the combustion of coal is marked as the main responsible gas for the greenhouse effect. In the end you have the situation that citizens who live near coal-fired plants are exposed to higher radiation doses than those living near nuclear power plants that meet government regulations. In coal you do not have only uranium and thorium but also daughter products produced by the decay of these isotopes, such as radium, radon, polonium, bismuth, and lead. An article about the negative effects of all these compounds would be very long but in short we can just say the following.
When we calculate negative influence on the environment of coal combustion per energy unit, and compare it with the negative influence of energy unit produced in nuclear plant, nukes are in advantage. The result of coal-fired production of energy is an enormous amount of chemical pollutants, a great destruction of nature, and dangerous nuclear products in nature that are wandering around with water and wind. The effect is like they are in the amounts as much as from nuclear plants. In nuclear technology you do not have all of this, but you have a great risk. Like with airplanes that are very sensitive, very well controlled and maintained from time to time you have a high probability of great accident like Chernobyl that then destroys the public belief in nuclear technology.
It must be noticed that in some places 30% of the ash is reused in different ways for cement, roads and other similar things. Scientists are also investigating new ways to commercially produce many hard metals from the ash, as well as some other compounds and there are great expectations in this field.
One issue is very important and should be highlighted. If the same regulations that are used now for nuclear plants and cars, are used for coal-fired plants, their capital and operating costs would increase a lot and those energy resources would not be so popular, as they are now. It is important to start using the same regulations for all and these technologies must be improved. In that way these technologies will became more environmentally friendly, like it happened with cars.
It is not easy to give an answer what is better. There are great discussions which technology is more responsible for the great rise of cancer and other pollution originated diseases. You may ask people that live near surface mines, ash disposal sites and coal-fired plants what they think about all of this. But families of people that died after the great accident in Chernobyl and many nuclear probes above and under ground, would not agree with their opinion. The public is actually completely scared of the power seen in nuclear explosions. But it seems adequate to give a small advantage to nuclear technology.
So what is the solution? Well, the solution is not to drive cars and fly with fast airplanes. The solution is to ride a bicycle. Flying and driving is appropriate only when necessary. In another words, science is now offering us many better ways to produce energy in an environmentally friendly way and also to save a great percentage of the energy. You have wind, Sun, water, hydrogen, biomass and many other solutions not so wide known. And that is what every person that cares about his planet must stand for.
Danilo Vujosevic, Belgrade