Defining the terms of this debate
For this resolution, I want to focus primarily on large-scale nuclear power generation, whereby a process of human-induced nuclear fission is used to produce heat, which is then converted into electricity using a turbine. There are other ways to use nuclear energy to produce electricity - the Sun is basically a giant nuclear reaction and it drives solar panels, for example, and nuclear heat decay is basically what drives geothermal plants - but I want to scope this debate to what most people conventionally understand as nuclear power plants only. Basically, this:
Why this debate is important
I also want to address this issue right at the outset because it matters, even though I imagine my opponent will agree with me entirely. I take this debate on a day after numerous young people around the world went protesting for a greener climate. We know that energy generation has been a big contributor of climate change, and many countries are actively looking for ways to reduce their carbon footprint. Nuclear energy presents one such option. Wind, hydro and ocean are the only alternatives with comparable or lower emissions - much of the emissions coming from the actual construction and dismantling of the plant. Additionally, next-generation nuclear designs are now safer and better able to scale to meet energy demands compared to the more primitive designs used in the past (although no plant, as I'll demonstrate later, can ever be 100% safe). I believe there is a strong interest in nuclear, coupled with a strong lobby from nuclear power companies in countries such as the United States. Therefore it is critical that policymakers and their constituents do not make uninformed choices.
To implement this resolution would require an international approach, likely by treaty. Existing plants would continue to run to the end of their current life-cycle. Construction on new plants would cease and the resources recycled appropriately. Management of existing nuclear sites would continue as per normal. Where other treaties exist to provide nuclear aid, these would be replaced with providing aid for other renewable sources of energy, depending on the circumstances of nations party to those treaties. Finally, heavy sanctions would be imposed by all nations to the treaty on any nation that allows the construction of any power plant meeting the conditions described above.
Wait ... does that mean nuclear is non-renewable?
Yes. Almost all reactors around the world eat up uranium fresh from the mine. It's not exactly the most abundant mineral in the world and we're running out. In fact, at present, we're going to be all out of uranium in just about 70 years unless we find some more and build more giant uranium mines in somebody's backyard. It's likely that we will (at least the way we're going currently), but it's still far from a sustainable solution. The reactors that are being built now are designed to last a smaller amount of time than the wind, hydro and solar farms being built now, simply because the designers know there won't be fuel to power them. Hydro plants are a good counter-example because they were one of the first types of generation to be invented - and many hydro plants from the very first generation are still in operation today. The same cannot be said for nuclear. Even if nuclear lasts for another 200 years, it is not sustainable.
You may have heard that nuclear waste can be reprocessed. This is technically correct, but is impossible with most reactors today. So-called breeder reactors, which can produce new material to use in reactors, were a popular trend in the 60s, but then some fat cat realised it was cheaper to build reactors that produced almost no waste that could be reprocessed (this, by the way, is mostly a byword for plutonium, which I'll talk more about soon). As a result there are currently a large number of vast nuclear waste stocks sitting around in containment facilities that will never be able to be used again, and which are doing nothing except poisoning the earth. Thank the need for electricity to not cost a fortune for that. Currently there are only two such reactors, both in Russia. Even nuclear powers lobbies have routinely said renewable nuclear power is not commercially viable, and the promises of such reactors unfulfilled. As a result, virtually no country today is investing in the technology, despite over a hundred billion dollars being sunk into research. And even these reactors still produce a significant amount of nuclear waste, representing a significant additional sunk cost.
Virtually all nuclear power generation generates Plutonium
Perhaps the most concerning of these by-products is plutonium, which is not only highly poisonous, but highly useful to the military because it can do this:
I mean, uhm ... sorry, it's actually way worse than that. More like this:
I'm simplifying a little because there's several types of Plutonium, but the process does produce all types, and the others can be fairly easily converted to the dangerous type using a simple process called enrichment. Other byproducts are similarly useful in producing bombs.
Who cares if a couple of world leaders get nuclear weapons?
We know for a fact that numerous countries have gained access to nuclear weapons using this method. This includes nations such as North Korea and Israel. In fact, there are few nuclear warheads today that were not once part of a benign nuclear power plant. And even if this could be controlled safely by governments, non-state actors like terrorist organisations will soon have nuclear capabilities as well if nuclear power were to continue to proliferate. While nuclear power will be short-lived, this danger will not. The materials being created will be good for using in nuclear weapons for many, many generations to come. If climate change is cause for alarm, we need only remember the alarm from a few decades ago of the cold war. How many times did humanity narrowly avoid near-certain self-destruction? This will not cease as long as there are many nuclear weapons.
Nuclear disarmament is impossible with nuclear power
It makes no sense to tell nations to cease production on nuclear weapons and simultaneously encourage them to produce all the required materials for it. This has, in fact, been the US foreign policy ever since the cold war stopped, which backfired pretty bad when suddenly Iran wanted to develop nuclear power and everyone freaked out.
As long as nuclear power is around, nuclear weapons will be around. Any nation with spent nuclear fuel sitting around is, practically by definition, nuclear capable. Making a bomb out of such materials is much, much easier than building a safe nuclear power plant in the first place. It took North Korea a couple of years to figure out how to add one of those to a warhead just recently. And nuclear weapons are DEVASTATING. Most developed and many undeveloped nations already have missiles ready that could in theory be used to carry such weapons.
Even if anyone legitimately believes that any nation with nuclear power today is safe, they must also consider that nuclear power is expanding, and that even in countries that are safe now, bad leaders may come along later. This is why so many Americans were upset that Trump has access to the nuclear launch codes. And as I mentioned earlier, even if nations don't make lots of nuclear weapons, terrorists and other groups will jump at the chance.
Bottom line: Nuclear Energy is unsafe and not environmentally friendly
I haven't even mentioned the possibility of a nuclear meltdown yet. That's because modern reactor designs make this very unlikely in most circumstances. A far greater threat is posed by the potential for nuclear power to proliferate nuclear weapons. There remains with any type of power the potential for catastrophe. For example, much like nuclear, hydro accidents are rare but devastating when they happen. However, the only other type of power generation that produces a byproduct incredibly toxic to human life is burning fossil fuels. If we switched from mostly coal to mostly uranium, all we'd be doing is changing from directly poisoning the air to directly poisoning the earth. While advanced spent fuel dumping grounds are unlikely to leak anytime soon, it's no better than carbon-capture technologies currently being used on virtually all modern coal plants. In short, uranium isn't really a better solution.
Why it needs to be everybody
You might wonder, well, what if my nation is not crazy? Why should we have to switch to renewables? First, because that's a double standard. It is immoral to impose on others a restriction which you would not ordinarily impose on yourself. Second, no country is safe from despotism in the long run. Third, the existence of nuclear power in some countries incentivises underground networks to form to trade nuclear secrets. This increases the likelihood that nuclear power spreads in secret and becomes weaponised. Fourth, most nuclear countries are wealthy enough to not really require nuclear power anyway. I wish to elaborate on this point below.
While not committing to a specific counter-model in this debate, I briefly want to mention what a better source of power would look like.
Historically the main concern with renewables has been their reliability and scalability. Wind farms and solar panels struggle when it is not windy or when it's cloudy. A hydro dam may become dry. This is why a combination of renewables is necessary. Modern renewables have, in recent times, become much less expensive and capable of producing far more energy than the network needs at any given time. There have been plenty of recent advances in capturing and releasing this energy in a controlled way, including Tesla's battery farm in Australia, which routinely does a number of the nuclear plants in Australia. Furthermore, with less money and corporate interests backing unsafe, cheap short-term options, we'd better be able to invest into research to improve renewables further, and invest into new renewable energy sources that lack this problem entirely, such as tidal power. In Europe, there have been several occasions where the large supply of electricity thanks to cheap-to-run renewables has actually caused the price of electricity to become negative for a while! This is a better system because less terrorism, less bombs, less danger, more happy people, and the Earth won't have such a massive catastrophe because we'd be better helping the climate. And that, ultimately, is what this debate is all about.
The resolution is affirmed.
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I negate the resolution: That we should ban nuclear energy
I provide the following definitions for today's round:
nuclear reactor: any of a class of devices that can initiate and control a self-sustaining series of nuclear fissions¹
ban: to prohibit especially by legal means²
When I refer to my opponent's "points", I'm going to be referring to his bolded sections.
I also agree with why this debate is important. In a day and age where we're making crucial decisions that will not only impact the future of humankind, but the entire Earth, we have an obligation to spread information that will positively impact the world that we live in today, and the world that we create tomorrow.
In today's debate, instead of doing my normal constructive, I find it much more effective to go down my opponent's flow and rebut their points. With that being said, let's begin.
Opponent's Point 1: Nuclear energy is non-renewable
My opponent has stated that nuclear energy is a non-renewable resource, and yes, this is technically correct. Due to lack of governmental and commercial backing of more sustainable nuclear energy, we don't have a sustainable way to recycle nuclear waste. And because it's not a renewable resource, we should ban it, because we'll eventually run out of it, right? Well, yes, but that's not the inherent fault of nuclear energy, but the fault of those unwilling to invest in "cleaner" nuclear energy. The lack of subsidization on the government's part is a result of the fact that when superpowers were researching nuclear energy, it was mostly for research on weaponization. This is the main reason why more efficient, safe, and clean solution (such as SMR's³ and Thorium breeder reactors⁴) need to be established and researched to achieve a greener future.
Opponent's Point 2, 3, 4, and 5(Partly): Nuclear energy produces weaponizable byproducts
This, to some extent is false, because not all kinds of nuclear energy produce Pu²³⁹. However, much of our fuel that's used in today's nuclear reactors use U²³⁵, which turn into Pu²³⁹, which is both extremely toxic and very easily weaponizable⁵. However, once again, U²³⁵ isn't the only option for nuclear power. For example, in recent years, Thorium has begun to gain interest because of its preferability to uranium.
So, does that mean that you can't make a bomb out of Thorium?
Well, not necessarily. The one hypothetical proliferation concern with Thorium fuel, that being that Protactinium can be chemically separated shortly after it is produced and removed from the neutron flux (the path to U²³³is Th-232 -> Th²³³ -> Pa²³³ -> U²³³). Then, it will decay directly to pure U²³³. By this challenging route, one could obtain weapons material⁶. But Pa²³³ has a 27 day half-life, so once the waste is safe for a few times, weapons are out of the question⁷.
Besides avoiding plutonium, Thorium has additional self-protection from the hard gamma rays emitted due to U²³² as discussed above. This makes stealing Thorium based fuels more challenging. Also, the heat from these gammas makes weapon fabrication difficult, as it is hard to keep the weapon pit from melting due to its own heat⁸. This means that the contaminants could be chemically separated and the material would be much easier to work with. U²³² has a 70 year half-life so it takes a long time for these gammas to come back.
The greater safety of these Thorium would mean that we could put more trust in nations using nuclear energy. While I personally believe that common reactors, such as U-Pu water/gas/graphite reactors⁹ pose a much more significant risk of countries extracting and abusing the fissionable products of those reactions. However, as previously explained, other types of nuclear energy could be a much safer and cleaner option, while also ensuring that other nations don't misuse their resources.
Opponent's Point 5: Nuclear energy is bad for the environment
This is an incredibly common misconception about nuclear energy. Many people's first assumption about nuclear energy is that because of incidents like the 1986 Chernobyl accident and Fukushima. However, in reality, the actual likelihood of nuclear meltdown and actual fatalities due to accidents such as these are incredibly low, simply because for updated Gen III and Gen II reactors to fail and actually cause harm, there have to be extraordinary circumstances leading up to the error that caused it. Even then, when actually looking at the numbers, the actual total fatalities caused by nuclear incidents comes out to around 110-130(this is including deaths not caused by actual failures, but also other causes, like failure to follow safety protocol)¹⁰. As for the idle radiation produced by liquids, gasses, and the idle radiation of the reactors, people living within a 50 mile radius receive about 0.001 millirems of radiation per year¹¹. To put this number in perspective, the average person receives 620 millirems of radiation per year¹², showing that the actual radiation from the reactors themselves pose no active threat to the environment's well being.
Opponent's Final Point: Alternative Energy
In my opponent's final point, he discusses the necessity of the integration of a diverse network of alternative energy sources. I completely agree that we should be investing, on both a corporate, private, and governmental level, in ways to create more sustainable and clean energy sources. However, in this point, he points out the current lack of reliability and scaling due to a lack of investment, and the same is true for nuclear energy. With increased interest, nuclear energy has the possibility to creating a safer and greener tomorrow, accompanied with other forms of clean energy.
For the reasons above, and to achieve a brighter future, I urge a con ballot in today's debate.
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Things we agree on
I pretty much called it when I mentioned the main argument for nuclear power is its perceived "cleanliness". Therefore I think we both agree that environmental safety in power generation is a top principle for this debate.
We also both agree nuclear power is generally extremely safe. I don't really want a debate about meltdowns because it's super predictable, super rare, and not a particularly unique problem in the big scheme of things. This is not to say there are no safety concerns whatsoever - and of course, the fallout if there was a major malfunction could potentially be terrible, so it's still important to adhere to best safety practice - but frankly similar concerns exist with many other forms of power, as I mentioned last round.
We both agree that bombs are bad and nuclear energy can be a vehicle for the production of some terrible bombs. We also agree that nuclear waste is a no-good byproduct of nuclear power generation. We also agree none of these are problems with renewable energy.
Finally, we both agree alternative options are readily available. Implicitly con seems willing to accept that if nuclear is somehow more harmful than these alternatives, then the resolution should be allowed to stand. I'll even go one further and argue for banning fossil fuel based energy by the same logic, but let's save that debate for another day.
My opponent contests that with more research, better reactors may appear. My model doesn't prevent nuclear research, only mass power generation. If better options become available, future governments could of course consider allowing those alternatives. Thorium, while highly touted by my opponent, is not one of those alternatives currently.
There are no thorium reactors running today, despite many decades of research and again, like breeder reactors, a lot of money spent on their development. Thorium can run out too. It's much more abundant on Earth than uranium, but much of it is just chilling in trace amounts in random soil around the world. It's actually quite hard to extract in mass quantities unless there is some higher concentration of it in one spot. For some reason Indian beaches qualify, so I guess at least those will change from being mostly trash heaps to being mostly thorium mines. There's a handful of other places too. But like uranium, it's not a renewable resource. Eventually it will run out (a recent journal article I read, but can't link because of paywalls, put it at about 400 years, but this seems high because it assumes all the thinly-spread Thorium minerals will be mined ie sprawling open-pit mines opening up all over the place) and wreck the planet unless a thorium breeder is built, which it won't be, because it's too expensive. In fact thorium breeders are much more expensive than uranium ones, because the thorium breeding process is much slower and making rods out of the fuel more complicated / expensive.
Top scientists agree thorium has no benefit on conventional reactors for avoiding proliferation. Broadly, it's because the chemical process con outlined isn't really a "challenging route" - in fact it's required to make the reactor work. If not used for nuclear weapons, the byproducts of this process become nuclear wastes that sit around in a concrete bunker. Avoiding it getting into the hands of bad actors is almost as difficult as trying to safely manage the process itself, because the irradiation process is so dangerous anyway. So while my opponent is correct that the heat makes weapon fabrication difficult, it also makes nuclear fuel fabrication difficult. The only way to avoid being able to turn it into a weapon is to also be unable to use it for power. This hardly means we're able to trust nations using this technology. With these problems already identified long before thorium is mainstream, I have few doubts other problems will arise. To drive home the point, numerous countries have tried building a thorium reactor. Every single one is late and over budget. All these nations have been praying that Thorium is a miracle, and that they can make all these breeder reactors to make it work. India has been trying to do so for over 40 years. Optimistically they hope to have their first plant done next year, and they're pretty much the undisputed world leaders in thorium energy. This is after twice having to push back the completion date.
Thorium is hard to get, hard to use, helps spread bombs, produces toxic waste, is much slower and more expensive, and is non-renewable. This, everybody, is what my opponent thinks will win him the debate.
The resolution is affirmed.
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