Electricity production in the US consumes over 40% of the total energy produced within the continent. Given the high percentage of energy consumption in electricity, the concept forms a significant segment of consumers’ environmental footprint. Fossils fuels such as coal, natural gas, and oil are the key generators of electricity in the US.
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According to Environmental Impact Assessment’s data of 2011, coal contributes 42.3%, as natural gas contributes 24.7% of US total electricity generation. In the same year, 4 trillion kilowatt-hours of electricity came from coal, and 42% of the US population consumed this portion (Batagol).
The United States produced 1,094.3 million short tons of coal from the 25 coalmine states. Wyoming, which is in the Western Coal Region, produces the largest amount of coal in the US followed by West Virginia.
Comparatively, electricity production and consumption in the US using steam engines has been on the rising trend given that the 3,856 billion Kilowatt-hours (kWh) in 2011 is 13 times higher than the consumption in 1950.
Major mining zones in the US include the Western Coal Region, the Appalachian Coal Region, and the Interior Coal Region, which agree that production and conversion of coal to useful energy is relatively cheaper than other forms of energy. Nuclear energy has also dominated electricity generation with 19.3%. Uranium, U-235, is available in the mines of western United States.
There are 65 power plants in the US; they are located in 31 states. The three populous states of New York, Texas and California have been using more of the one-fifth US electricity that Nuclear Plants have been producing yearly since 1990.
Currently, development in power plants saw the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission accepts the building and operation of units 3 and 4 of the Vogtle plant, which may start operating in 2016. In 2002, US commercial reactors sites stored 51,002 short tons, and an estimate value reported 12.2 billion kilowatt-hours (kWh) as the amount of electricity that a single power plant can generate.
In terms of production, nuclear reactors do not emit harmful products like CO2 and SO2; however, the process of manufacturing large amounts of metals and concrete as well as mining and refining uranium ore require large amount of energy (Batagol). Since radioactive materials are harmful to human health, those handling uranium are prone to infections.
People have to adhere strictly to disposal regulations given that the elements always remain active for several years. Apt safety measures should be in place to control nuclear reaction in the reactor in order to avert incidences like the 1986 Chernobyl disaster in Ukraine and the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in Japan.
Although this source of energy has harmful effects, it is highly likely that it will continue growing to eliminate coal as the main source of energy production given its eco-friendly nature. Besides, countries are moving towards using eco-friendly processes in order to avert the climate change menace.
The changing climate implies that most countries will divert to eco-friendly sources to produce electricity, and nuclear energy is capable of producing large quantity of electricity.
Renewable energy sources like geothermal, solar, wood, water, and organic wastes produced 12% of US’s electricity in 2012. Hydropower has been the major producer of electricity among the renewable electricity generators. Since coal is the main electricity producer, it has great chances of growth albeit the effects that it posses to the environment.
China tops in usage of renewable energy followed closely by the United States; the US still uses more of coal than the renewable energy due to the higher cost of constructing and operating renewable energy power plants than coal and natural gas plants.
Besides, the geographical remoteness of the renewable energy sources also implicates extra costs, as the process requires constructing transmission lines to metropolitan areas from remote regions. Even though there are high possibilities of growth for coal as a key energy producer in the US, it faces criticism from environmental agencies given its negative impact on the state of the environment and human health.
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For instance, emissions from burning coal such as CO2, SO2, mercury, and particulates cause acidic rain and smog, which are harmful to the environment and cause respiratory complications (Davis and Keegan). This is a great contrary to nuclear energy as it is environmentally friendly in terms of emissions.
Construction of nuclear power plants can have temporary or permanent effects on the environment. For instance, the construction equipment emits pollutants into air, land, and water since they occupy space in these areas. With the construction occupying spaces, it does away with any future use of the land for production purposes.
Apart from construction effects, license renewal for nuclear plants may necessitate use of extra pieces of land for removing old components and staging new components. Such operations may expose workers to radiation, which are hazardous health effects. Therefore, plants must adhere to the allowable radioactive exposure so that the source does not become harmful to the human health and the environment.
Uranium being a radioactive element can increase cancer incidences, that is, if limits of radon –226RN and 222Rn- concentration surpass the permissible limit (El-Hinnawi par 6). In addition, during mining, exposure to dust and radiation can result in respiratory diseases and cancerous growths in the body.
Wind erosion can blow piles of mills into rivers, thus causing leaching. The toxic nature of fluorine and hydrogen fluoride that produces uranium hexafluoride poses serious health threats. Workers should protect themselves from the highly corrosive UF6 in order to avoid dangerous exposures.
In operating nuclear plants, the fuel element retains most of the radioactive products, and the liquid and gas waste-processing system removes the radioactive releases. Comparably, gaseous emissions from nuclear reactors are negligible to fossil-fuel-operated plants. However, the plant releases a lot of heat during operation, and directs them to the cooling water.
Accidents are possible with the operation of a nuclear reactor; however, necessary safety practices and devices have been integrated into the reactor to protect workers and the public incase of malfunctions (Davis and Keegan). In case of chemical leakage to the environment, radioactive elements can cause adverse effects on fauna and flora.
For instance, in the Fukushima disaster, radioactive elements caused mass water and soil pollution to the extent that the locals had to stop using water from taps and certain products.
A nuclear plant requires stringent procedures and monitoring during construction and operation since it uses extremely harmful chemicals that can stay long in a human’s body and the environment. Radioactive elements reduce soil fertility thereby killing plants growth.
Nuclear energy is an extremely delicate source of energy, as it requires a complex safety system and highly skilled personnel in order to operate at cost-effective terms. The high demand for electricity world over and constant advocation for a clean environment by many organizations make nuclear energy to be a preferred choice to coal.
The Clean Energy Standard Act of 2012 advocates the use of energy sources that do not produce greenhouse gases (El-Hinnawi par. 4). Clearly, this makes coal lose preference to nuclear energy, as it limits global warming. Since the nuclear energy industry has been able to account for all its wastes, it remains a vibrant and best option in for the current world, which struggles to prevent adverse effects to the environment.
Batagol, Cheryl. “Clean Energy | US EPA.” US Environmental Protection Agency. N.p., n.d. Web.
Davis, Dave, and Michael J Keegan. “Nonrenewable Energy Sources.” U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA). N.p., n.d. Web.
El-Hinnawi, Essam E. “Review of the Environmental Impact of Nuclear Energy.” International Atomic Energy Agency. N.p., n.d. Web.