Nuclear energy has long been a stigmatized energy source. We are bombarded with information about how the process can go wrong. We do not, however, receive much information on the process itself or any large successes.
It’s up to the general public to go digging for this information themselves if they want to have an educated viewpoint. Students at UNC-Chapel Hill are a perfect example of the general knowledge of many citizens.
“I feel like I’m much more knowledgeable on other types of energy sources,” Amoryn Martin, a junior psychology major from Erie, Pennsylvania, said. “I feel like there are numerous better options that are more widely and thoroughly discussed because they are better options in the first place.”
“I know very little,” Shelby Rawlins, a senior biology major from Charlotte, North Carolina, said. “Is it nuclear fission? Like the breaking of atoms? And they use that energy? Am I completely wrong?”
It’s time to get to the bottom of popular opinion—is nuclear energy a bad idea or not?
The best way to proceed is to first understand how nuclear energy works. The process is more complex than a simple collision of materials to make energy.
The nuclear power process involves uranium atoms hitting neutrons, which splits the atoms. This split makes more neutrons leave the uranium, which then split more atoms, and so on. The danger here is that if left unchecked, this process can result in a huge explosion.
These uncontrolled reactions are what we see in nuclear weapons. Nuclear energy, however, uses controlled reactions to ensure that energy is generated without risk. The controlled reactions heat water to 520 degrees, which then spins turbines that generate electricity.
The big risk involved here is that the products of these reactions are highly radioactive. If there was some kind of accident, radiation could potentially escape and infect both the environment and people. The United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission exists for the sole purpose of making sure this doesn’t happen.
The commission works to keep plants as safe as possible. It requires strong protection around the uranium, a highly reinforced reactor vessel, and a heavy-duty, well built containment building. They also require water to be on hand to cool off the fuel if needed.
But, some people don’t think that these precautions are enough. Large-scale accidents are cited as examples of why the technology is dangerous.
Chernobyl and Three Mile Island were both environmentally hazardous events that caused either many fatalities or cancer problems later on. It is important to remember that many technologies have problems at the start that are then completely eliminated later on.
Another argument against nuclear energy is its link with nuclear weapons. People think that developments in the nuclear energy arena could easily be adapted to weapons of mass destruction. It also can be quite costly to manufacture nuclear energy when you consider government aid.
However, we must still consider that using nuclear energy takes the place of the heavily polluting fossil fuel energy. And, unlike many renewables, nuclear energy is reliable—it does not depend on weather factors to function. The actual cost of fuel is low, which makes relatively cheap electricity.
Scott Lassell, a nuclear engineer in the triangle area, says that nuclear power is “a viable part of the energy mix.”
Lassell says that all traditional reservations against nuclear power are technical issues that can be easily solved, and that the biggest problems today are political and economic. The low price of natural gas is also inhibiting the growth of nuclear power.
One of our goals as a planet is to stop global warming by ending the reign of fossil fuel. Although nuclear power is not entirely clean, its reliability is a big aid in switching to other energy sources.
Renewables like solar and wind continue to develop, but until they can cover all of our energy needs, nuclear power may be the perfect fill-in.