What is nuclear energy?

Nuclear energy has been powering the United States for over 60 years. But how exactly do nuclear power plants generate electricity?

Nuclear energy is formed by splitting uranium or plutonium atoms through chain reactions in a nuclear reactor by a process called ‘nuclear fission’. The energy released from splitting the atoms is used to heat water into steam. This steam then turns a turbine, which creates usable electricity. 

Experts believe that thorium is another fuel that could be used for nuclear power. It’s already being used in countries like India and Russia.

Pros and cons of nuclear power 

Nuclear energy comes with many benefits and drawbacks, which is what makes it such a controversial alternative energy source. Here are the main nuclear energy pros and cons:

Nuclear energy pros and cons
Pros Cons
Low-cost energy Environmental impact
Reliable power source Water intensive
Zero-carbon emissions Risk of nuclear accidents
Promising energy future Radioactive waste
High energy density Non-renewable energy source

Advantages of nuclear energy 

1. Low-cost energy 

Although building nuclear power plants has a high initial cost, it’s relatively cheap to produce energy from them and they have low operating costs. 

Also, nuclear power doesn’t experience the same kind of price fluctuations that traditional fossil fuel energy sources like coal and natural gas do. Because of that, the price of nuclear energy can be predicted well into the future. 

That price is likely to remain low, or get even lower, as technologies advance. 

2. Reliable 

One of the biggest benefits of nuclear energy is that it is a reliable power generation source. 

Unlike solar and wind energy, which need the sun to be shining or the wind to be blowing, nuclear power can be generated at any time throughout the day. This means that a nuclear power plant can produce energy nonstop, and you won’t have to experience any delays in energy production. 

3. Zero-carbon emissions 

Nuclear power reactors do not produce any carbon emissions. This is a huge advantage over traditional sources of energy, like fossil fuels, which releases tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. 

Excess carbon dioxide is one the leading causes of climate change. So, the less carbon and greenhouse gas emissions an energy source has, the better. 

In fact, according to the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), nuclear electricity production prevents 528 million metric tons of carbon dioxide from being released into the atmosphere annually. 

4. Promising future energy supply 

Nuclear fusion is the holy grail of harnessing energy. If we can learn to control atomic fusion (the same reactions as those that fuel the sun), we could practically have unlimited energy. 

At the moment, this method has some serious challenges that need to be worked out if we are to start using them on a larger scale. However, the potential it has is important to keep in mind when thinking about energy generation in the future. 

5. High energy density 

It is estimated that the amount of energy released in a nuclear fission reaction is ten million times greater than the amount released when burning fossil fuels. 

Therefore, the amount of nuclear fuel required in a nuclear power plant is much smaller compared to those of other types of power plants. This helps contribute to the low cost of nuclear energy. One nuclear power plant can produce thousands of megawatt hours of energy. 

Disadvantages of nuclear energy 

While there are many advantages to using nuclear energy,  there are also plenty of negative effects of nuclear energy. The following are the most important ones:

1. Environmental impact

Although nuclear power plants release zero carbon emissions, nuclear power still has a substantial impact on the environment, mainly through mining and water discharge. 

The uranium used to produce nuclear energy has to be mined. Mining of any kind has a negative impact on the surrounding area. Uranium mining in particular is known for releasing arsenic and radon. This has had a negative impact on the health of those living around uranium mines, which consists largely of members of the Navajo nation. 

Nuclear power plants also cause something called ‘thermal pollution’. Most nuclear power plants are located on a body of water, like a lake or the ocean. The power plant uses water from the lake or ocean, referred to as cooling water, to condense steam back into water. 

This process causes the cooling water to increase in temperature, and is then released back into the body of water. This hot water, usually around 100 degrees fahrenheit, significantly changes the chemistry of the ocean or lake it is discharged into, making it inhabitable to most aquatic life. 

2. Water intensive 

Nuclear power plants require a lot of water to produce energy. In 2015, the United States consumed 320 billion gallons of water to produce nuclear power. That’s more water than what is used for coal processing. 

As water becomes more scarce, especially in the face of climate change, this enormous consumption of water could become unsustainable. 

3. Risk of nuclear accidents 

Nuclear power plants have very strict safety measures in place. However, accidents can happen no matter how careful you are. A meltdown at a nuclear plant can have a catastrophic impact on the surrounding areas, which we know from events like the Fukushima disaster, Chernobyl, and Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania. 

In the event of a nuclear meltdown, harmful radiation can leak, which can cause adverse effects on the environment and on human health. The 1986 incident at Chernobyl ultimately led to thousands of deaths, with estimates ranging from 4,000 to 60,000 dead as a result of the incident. Not only that, more than 2 million people are still struggling with health problems related to Chernobyl. Today, over 30 years later, access is still limited within the 19-mile Chernobyl exclusion zone.

It is important to keep in mind, however, that these types of accidents are rare. Plus, many studies show that the fossil fuel industry is substantially more deadly than the nuclear industry, even when you include catastrophes like Chernobyl. 

4. Radioactive waste 

Generating nuclear power does not emit harmful greenhouse gases in the air, however, it does create hazardous waste. The waste created by nuclear power plants remains dangerously radioactive for thousands of years after it is created. Many issues arise when trying to figure out how to store this radioactive waste. 

Waste continues to accumulate at nuclear power plants, as there is no long-term storage facility for it. The accumulation of hazardous nuclear waste will become an issue once power plants run out storage space. 

Plus, if there is a compromise in the storage facility, such as a leak, the radioactive material could cause significant damage to surrounding areas. The federal government started looking for a place stable enough for nuclear waste disposal in 1982, however, no such site has been found. 

5. Non-renewable 

A renewable energy resource is defined as a source of energy that is not depleted when it is used, or that can be replenished within a human lifetime. Solar power is an example of a renewable resource because as we turn solar energy into usable electricity, we do not decrease the power of the sun. 

Nuclear energy, on the other hand, is a non-renewable energy source. This is because the fuel used in nuclear reactors, uranium, is a finite resource. As we mine uranium, we deplete the amount that is available, and more will not be produced within a human lifetime. 

Right now, experts believe that there is about 200 years’ worth of uranium available, assuming we stay at the same rate of nuclear production. But, if we become more reliant on nuclear power in the future, the supply of uranium will deplete faster, which may cause problems in the years ahead.

The future of nuclear energy

As you can see, there are many arguments both for and against nuclear power. With further technological advances, this zero-carbon energy source could help us reach a clean energy future. 

You may see new plants show up in the future. However, other forms of energy like geothermal, wind energy, and solar power, are truly renewable and could lead us to a greener future. 

You can power your home on renewable energy now by installing solar panels. When you pair solar panels with energy storage, you can run your home on solar even when the sun isn’t shining. Plus, installing solar panels can completely eliminate your utility bill! 

Use our solar calculator to find out how much a solar system could save you. 

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