Many people have decided that it’s time to start paying attention to the impact that they are having on the environment. However, they carry misconceptions that may make their actions and advocacy of certain policies counterproductive to environmental protection. In this page, I will attempt to dispel some of the myths surrounding conservation and environmentalism.
Many environmental advocacy groups such as Greenpeace and the Clamshell Alliance oppose the use of nuclear power. People everywhere have an irrational fear of nuclear power, associating it with nuclear explosions and world-ending scenarios. But in comparing nuclear power with many other power production methods, one sees that it is the safest and cleanest viable large-scale power source available.
Windmills and solar power plants cannot possibly produce enough energy to fulfill any significant portion of current energy demand. This is evident in the fact that government subsidies are often required to keep solar and wind power plants operating. If these systems were really viable, they would be economically self-sufficient. Since they operate at a loss, it is apparent that they may actually be a waste of resources.
Since nuclear power plants and hydrocarbon-burning power plants are the only energy-producing power systems currently viable, it is wise to compare the two to each other. Nuclear power plants produce no greenhouse gas emissions, and no gas emissions of any kind besides water vapor.
Misguided environmentalists often point out the dangers of nuclear power, including the threats of nuclear meltdown and other accidents. In fact, compared with the processes involved in producing energy from hydrocarbons, nuclear power is extremely safe. On average, about 1000 Americans die each year just from black lung disease, a sickness contracted by inhaling coal dust. Coal mining and oil drilling accidents kill additional thousands of people every year. On the other hand, not a single death has been attributed to nuclear power production or any civilian nuclear activity since an accident that killed two people in Japan in 1999. In fact, the worst nuclear “disaster” in American history, the Three Mile Island incident, resulted in no fatalities and no measurable health effects in anyone.
People also fear the effects and possible dangers of long-term storage of spent nuclear fuel. In fact, most spent nuclear fuel is in solid form, and it is relatively easy to transport and bury in areas where it can’t harm anybody. On the other hand, the mercury waste produced in coal mining and usage often seeps into the oceans and groundwater, where it remains harmful. People are concerned that spent nuclear fuel may somehow be stolen by terrorists and used to make nuclear bombs. In fact, it is extremely difficult, even for an organized world power, to convert spent nuclear fuel into any fission or fusion bombs.
The Chernobyl disaster is sometimes used as an example of the dangers of nuclear power. The accident at Chernobyl did not occur during normal operation of the power plant. It occurred during an experiment in which the steam supply that spun the turbines which powered the pumps that supplied cooling water to the reactors was shut off. This test was conducted at nighttime by a skeleton crew who had little to no experience working with nuclear reactors. The test was scheduled to run earlier, during the daytime, but the malfunction of a regional power station postponed the test. The reactor on which the test would be performed was to be running at a low power setting during the test. The crew performing the test rapidly decreased the power output of a nuclear reactor, believing that the power output of the reactor had been decreased gradually through out the day. The result of the rapid lowering of the power output was a buildup of 135Xe, which absorbed neutrons and dampened the power output of the reactor so that it was lower than what the crew expected it would be. In reaction to this, the crew pulled control rods from the reactor to a position that was beyond safety regulations. When the water pumps were turned on for the experiment, the power output of the reactor decreased further due to the absorption of neutrons by the water, and so the crew removed more control rods. When the steam to the turbines was shut off as part of the experiment and the water flow rate decreased, decreasing the number of neutrons absorbed, the temperature of the coolant within the reactor shot up and the coolant boiled, increasing the power of the reactor. This created a condition that burned the 135Xe atoms faster than they were being created by the reaction, further increasing power, which in turn increased steam production, and so on. This feedback loop occurred with the control rods removed. When the control rods were finally reinserted, they fractured due to the temperatures within the reactor and became stuck only a third of the way in. A steam explosion caused the iconic destruction of the reactor building and the destruction of the lid of the reactor, and a graphite fire started within the building.
As you can see, the Chernobyl disaster was the result of an unlikely chain of blunders committed by an extremely incompetent reactor crew. This disaster is more of a testament to the dangers of Soviet arrogance and incompetence, and to the flaws of communism and centralized planning in general, than to the dangers of nuclear power itself. Every scientific, engineering, political, and military endeavor undertaken by the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was marked by death and destruction. The Soviet space program, for example, produced a spacecraft that had a 100 percent mortality rate for all who flew in it, and an unmanned spacecraft test that managed to kill 48 people. Also, even if a Chernobyl-like disaster happened every five years, the number of deaths and injuries due to nuclear power would still be less than the number of deaths and injuries due to coal power.
More environmentalists need to take a careful look at their reservations concerning nuclear power. The global warming and release of toxic materials involved in the production and use of fossil fuels is far more dangerous than any theoretical or actual affects of nuclear power.
Ethanol is often touted as a renewable energy source, with the potential to solve the problems of dwindling oil supplies and declining air quality. But the use and production of ethanol may actually not be beneficial to the environment. Ethanol production requires the use of farmland to produce the crop, which in the case of the United States is corn, which is fermented to produce the ethanol. The use of land means there is less space available for carbon-hoarding plants to grow, which increases the amount of carbon dioxide in the air. There are concerns that ethanol production requires about as much energy as is extracted from the use of that ethanol, which means that using ethanol means that you are using a lot more energy than you would use just by burning gasoline. Aside from the environmental affects, diverting farm products from food to fuel means that there is less food available, exacerbating problems such as global food shortages and starvation. In fact, Jean Ziegler, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food called the use of farmland that could be used to produce food to instead produce fuel a “crime against humanity”, and said that this practice is causing millions of poor people to go hungry.
Carbon Credits and Political Activism as opposed to Personal Sacrifice
Carbon Credits are financial donations people and corporations make toward causes such as alternative energy development and forest restoration. While donating to such causes is a good thing, many people, such as self-proclaimed environmentalists Al Gore and Barbra Streisand, use the purchase of carbon credits to “offset” the extremely destructive consequences of the opulent lives they lead. Today’s technology cannot possibly offset the unnecessary harm people do to the environment for the sake of comfort and convenience. If you truly care about the environment, you must be prepared to make sacrifices, which may not turn out to be sacrifices at all.
A great example is people’s diet. Food production is responsible for much environmental degradation- from the effects of toxic fertilizers and pesticides, to the effects of deforestation required to use land for farming, to the methane produced by livestock. Most Americans eat much more food than they need to eat in order to be healthy. In most people’s cases, simply eating less will result in improved personal health and profound environmental benefits.
One also may consider how much food he or she wastes. It is not a major endeavor to be more careful in your food shopping and preparation. If you eat at restaurants, keep in mind that almost all restaurants will be happy to box the food you don’t finish for you to take home.
Many environmentalists tend to focus on the government as the cause and as a potential solution to environmental problems. People feel that the government should place strict limitations on corporations to curb the environmental effects of their work. It is true that government regulation of waste output can have a small impact, but there are limits in the measures factories can take to curb their environmental impact while continuing to produce the same amount of product. It is up to environmentally conscious consumers to figure out ways to demand less.
Effects on the Economy
Some people believe that unnecessary spending somehow “stimulates” the economy and that the individual sacrifices people make to preserve the environment will hurt the economy and result in massive poverty. On the contrary, if people are able to use fewer resources while keeping productivity constant, they will actually help the economy by lowering prices of essential goods and increasing availability. Consider the end of the Great Depression as an example. World War II and the patriotism that it inspired encouraged Americans to follow government recommendations and requirements to reduce fuel, food, and material consumption. The result was the end of the pre-war global economic hardships and a booming post-war economy.
I hope this article has encouraged you to take a careful look at environmentalism. If you’re serious about protecting the environment, careful contemplation is required to ensure the steps you’re taking have a positive impact.
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