While we may not technically be in the midst of an energy crisis, we are still at a crucial time in history where we must decide how to more sustainably harness power for use without having a negative impact on either the environment or energy costs. There are many alternatives to fossil fuels, and it seems that no one can agree which one is best. One such alternative energy option is nuclear. The words “nuclear power” tend to strike fear in many people’s minds, even if they do not understand how nuclear power works.
How it Works
Nuclear power starts with the mining of uranium ore. Most of this ore can be found in Australia, Kazakhstan, and Canada. Nuclear power plants work similarly to plants that use coal or gas, opting for nuclear fission instead of nonrenewable resources. The heat from nuclear reactions is used to convert water into steam. This steam is able to power turbines, which are responsible for creating electricity. Uranium is available in different types of isotopes. The isotope used in nuclear power plants is called uranium-235. This isotope is used because the atoms are easier to split than in other isotopes. Unfortunately, this is the rarest isotope of uranium.
Nuclear fission is the process of separating the atoms in uranium. This is done by submerging rods of uranium into a pressurized water tank. In the reactor, neutrons moving at high speeds come into contact with the atoms of uranium, causing them to split. The product of this reaction is both energy and more neutrons, which helps continue the reaction. The energy is responsible for heating up the aforementioned water, turning it into steam and powering the turbines that create the electricity.
So, is nuclear power a good thing or a bad thing? The jury is still out, but there are certainly pros and cons that can be thought about.
Nuclear power has one great advantage compared to other forms of energy when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions. Because of nuclear energy, we have already halved greenhouse gas emissions. It does not produce carbon dioxide or methane, unlike other forms of energy. Aside from transportation, there are no negative impacts on water or land. Nuclear power is also cheaper than other forms of energy, due to the low cost of uranium. The initial cost of setting up nuclear power plants can be a bit expensive, but once constructed, their operating costs are low. Nuclear power is more reliable than weather-dependent forms of energy production such as wind and water. While uranium is not technically a renewable source of energy, breeder and fusion reactors can be used to create other elements that can generate energy through fission.
While nuclear power may have less of an environmental impact than fossil fuels, it is not completely innocent. Mining uranium is not yet a clean process. Transportation of nuclear fuel can be a pollution hazard. Fuel that has already been utilized also needs to be disposed of properly: it is still radioactive and cannot be dumped in a landfill. Radioactive waste is a serious health hazard. Take, for instance, the incident at Chernobyl, the worst nuclear accident in history. Chernobyl remains unoccupied and on some lists continues to register as dangerously radioactive. As mentioned above, uranium is also a finite source, and we do not yet have the technology to create other fissionable materials. One other problem with nuclear power is the fact that it represents a target for terrorists and other militant groups. Nuclear energy is currently used to make dangerous weapons, which, when in the wrong hands, could potentially ruin life as we know it.
So, is nuclear energy the way of the future? No one can say for sure. It depends on political leadership and technological developments. It also depends on how we, as a society, react to the pros and cons of this form of energy. We also need to address the security and environmental concerns. It seems that energy production on earth should come from a variety of sources, in order for optimal sustainability to occur. No matter what your personal opinion on nuclear energy is, it is essential that you are well informed on the process, pros, and cons of production.