You probably don’t often think about nuclear energy, but maybe it’s time to take a deeper look.
Nuclear energy has been a controversial topic since its creation in the 1950s (think: Fukushima). But it now generates nearly 20 percent of the U.S’s total energy production, and will likely keep growing.
The important question now is: should the nuclear industry continue expanding?
Answering this question is tough, but in order to do so both sides of the argument must be examined. Is nuclear energy “dope” and a promising source for energy in the future? Or should the U.S. say “nope” and stop pushing nuclear altogether?
Dope! Keep nuclear coming
- Relatively small carbon emissions
Yep, nuclear plants can produce energy without emitting greenhouse gases. That’s a pretty big deal considering the pressure on countries all over the world to reduce carbon emissions. The only problem is lifecycle emissions.
While the production of energy itself is “green,” the steps involved in making nuclear plants aren’t. The Nuclear Energy Institute recognizes that the process of creating nuclear emits pollution in various stages. However, nearly all other forms of renewable energy generate emissions during their life cycles too.
The International Panel on Climate Change, known as IPCC, conducted a study of lifecycle emissions for all types of energy. They found that nuclear emissions are on par with lifecycle emissions from renewables, and are much less than fossil fuels. This indicates that nuclear energy could become a major replacement for traditional fossil fuels.
However, nuclear engineer and associate professor Nam Dinh of North Carolina State University favors an “all of the above” approach.
“By itself, nuclear energy cannot replace fossil fuels,” he said. “Other renewable energy technologies have become increasingly affordable and should be pursued aggressively. However, wind and solar have their limitations.”
- Ability to generate huge amounts of energy
One of the biggest criticisms of renewables is their inability to generate large quantities of energy. But this is not the case with nuclear.
Nuclear power is fueled by an element called uranium. A single pellet of uranium, slightly bigger than a pencil eraser, is the energy equivalent to a ton of coal. This translates to 17,000 cubic feet of natural gas.
Further, a typical nuclear power plant generates enough energy to power 723,000 homes each year. Comparatively, over 14,000 tons of coal would have to be burned to produce that same amount of energy.
That’s a lot of carbon emissions. Nuclear prevents that unnecessary pollution from coal while generating far more energy.
- Reliable energy source
Nuclear power is the most reliable fuel source available. Its capacity factor, the ratio of actual power generated to maximum amount possible, is 91 percent. This is by far the highest of all energy sources.
Nuclear plants are also able to generate energy 24/7 for 18 to 24 months without interruption. This makes nuclear an important source that isn’t subject to fluctuations in price as much as oil or gas. It also means that nuclear can provide energy during times when energy demand and prices are high.
Dinh sees great reliability in the industry as a whole, beyond just the power capabilities of nuclear itself.
“As the operating experience accumulates, the technology becomes more reliable, and advanced designs emerge, the new plants are even more resilient to hazards or human errors,” he said.
Nope! Shut down nuclear ASAP
- Effects on the environment
Nuclear power requires the mining of uranium, a non-renewable radioactive resource. Radioactivity is not to be taken lightly. As we’ve seen with disasters like Fukushima, nuclear radiation can be catastrophic to the environment and human lives.
Monika Kondura is an Environment and Ecology professor at UNC-Chapel Hill. She said that the release of radioactive radiation into the environment remains toxic for thousands of years.
“The radiation released into the environment would be associated with the loss of biodiversity and all the ecological benefits, and most importantly, with major detrimental effects on human health,” she said.
Studies have shown that radiation from the nuclear meltdown at Fukushima has been devastating to surrounding areas. Timothy Mousseau, a professor at the Univeristy of South Carolina, conducted a study on the effects of radiation on birds.
Mousseau and his team found the bird populations they were studying were 30 percent lower than expected. This is double the loss that was observed in a similar study conducted following the aftermath of Chernobyl.
A nuclear meltdown like Fukushima forces us to stop and consider the risks when investing in nuclear technology. While safety precautions have been improved since this accident, future breakdowns are never out of the question.
- Disposal of toxic waste
When determining how long a radioactive isotope will linger in the environment, scientists look at half-life. Half-life is the time it takes for the concentration of an isotope to fall to half its original value. The problem with nuclear power is that uranium has a half-life of millions of years.
This long half-life creates a lot of problems when it comes to disposing of toxic waste properly. Currently, radioactive waste from nuclear plants is stored in large cylinders lined with steel and filled with concrete and water. These canisters are kept on-site at nuclear plants.
Dihn said that this type of disposal method meets protection requirements. He’s also hopeful that better techniques will be available in the future.
“Future technology may bring better or stronger and more resilient materials for use as containment,” he said.
Other methods involve burial of waste, which presents other issues. Tunnels have been dug deep beneath earth’s surface to bury waste. Various countries also used ocean floor disposal, until its ban in 1993.
Both methods of burial bring up serious concerns with regard to the environment and possible leeching of waste. And the long half-life of uranium clearly makes the disposal process of nuclear waste even trickier.
- Large consumption of fresh water
Consumption of freshwater, or evaporation, can be a big deterrent of nuclear energy.
Nuclear uses once-through and wet-recirculating methods for cooling systems. Once-through cooling takes water from a nearby source, runs it through pipes, and then discharges it back into the source. This is problematic because of thermal pollution’s effect on local ecosystems.
Wet-recirculating is similar to once-through, but involves circulating water through the plant a second time before discharging it. This can consume even more water than once-through because more water is lost as steam. It can also harm ecosystems through thermal pollution.
Most importantly, in comparison to other fuel sources, nuclear consumes the most water. Nuclear even uses more than coal, despite coal’s reputation of consuming enormous amounts of freshwater.
Earth’s population and energy demand are growing exponentially, which makes freshwater resources increasingly valuable. So an energy resource that takes water from human mouths is another factor to consider when planning for the future.
So, what are you trying to say?
Clearly there are valid arguments for each side of nuclear energy, and the world will never agree which is right. What’s important is that nuclear energy hasn’t been ruled out as a source of alternative energy. Therefore, staying informed about future research and development is critical, because nuclear could be an energy game-changer.