How Clean is Nuclear Energy?
Transitioning to alternative methods of power generation is essential for a cleaner, more sustainable future. We often speak of clean and renewable sources such as wind and solar energy, but what about nuclear? In this blog, we will be exploring various aspects of nuclear energy to help determine if it is a viable replacement for dirty energy.
What nuclear energy is
Nuclear energy comes from the energy inside the nucleus, or core of an atom. To obtain this energy, power plants use a process known as nuclear fission where the nucleus of the atom is split to release heat and radiation. Power plants typically use uranium atoms which are split when hit by a neuron. The collision creates more neurons, which collide with other uranium atoms which results in the process continually repeating itself. This is called a nuclear chain reaction. Power plants are able to control this process to produce heat that can be combined with water to create steam, which is then converted into electricity.
Nuclear energy has many advantages including the following:
Compared to other sources of energy, nuclear is less harmful to the environment as it does not produce any carbon or methane emissions.
Cheap source of electricity
Although the initial building costs are high, once a power plant is up and running it can last 40-60 years. These plants only require uranium to generate electricity and end up being able to produce power at a much cheaper cost than fossil fuels.
Can be built almost anywhere
Nuclear power plants do not require locations where natural resources such as sun, wind, and water are abundant. Additionally, these plants do not significantly change the surrounding environment once they are built.
Reliable and flexible energy generation
Nuclear power plants can satisfy fluctuating demands for energy. These plants can reduce energy production when there is enough energy from other sources and increase energy production during periods of higher demand such as peak hours and during the winter.
As always, pros come with cons. Nuclear energy has significant disadvantages which many believe outweigh its advantages.
Risk of nuclear incidents
Although there are extensive safety measures, accidents can still happen. As we have seen in the past with power plants like the well-known Chernobyl, the effects of radioactive waste are detrimental to humans and the surrounding environment. This risk does not only stem from plant failures either, natural phenomenon such as earthquakes and tsunamis can also be the cause of incidents as seen in the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster.
Nuclear power plants produce radioactive waste that is extremely harmful to humans and the environment if not discarded correctly. Disposing of this waste is very difficult and it can remain hazardous for many decades.
Generating nuclear energy might be cheap, but the initial build of these power plants costs a fortune. Nuclear reactors require very high levels of technology, education, and money.
Is it clean? Renewable?
As we saw earlier, nuclear energy does not produce any pollutants or greenhouse gases. This means it is considered a clean energy source, but what about renewable? The answer is yes and no. The energy that is produced by nuclear plants is renewable, but the material required to produce that energy is not. Yes, uranium is a very common metal, but power plants require a very rare type of uranium known as U-235. It is possible for nuclear energy to one day become renewable with scientific and technological advancements. Until then, nuclear remains clean but non-renewable.
After learning more about nuclear energy, it is clear there are some great advantages, but also some scary disadvantages. Since nuclear is a clean source of energy it is certainly a step up from fossil fuels, but still lacks compared to wind turbines and solar panels which both derive energy from unlimited sources.