The etymology of the word “nuclear” comes from the word “nucleus” which means the most central and important part of an object. This is of course because nuclear energy was discovered after experimenting with reactions of uranium atoms and neutrons.
But it is interesting to think that just as the reaction that creates nuclear energy is found in the nucleus of uranium atoms, the controversy over the continued use of nuclear energy is at the core of practically any discussion about it. There is endless debate around the pros and cons of nuclear energy; and this article aims to get at the core of those too!
As with every public policy debate, it is important to acknowledge some indisputable facts. Decisions are never made in a vacuum; and in the case of nuclear energy the context has perhaps been particularly influential in getting government and other investors to back or not the development of nuclear power reactors .
Nuclear energy has a number of great pros and cons, from a seemingly infinite supply of sustained energy release and low emissions, to extremely toxic and disastrous human and environmental dangers when accidents occur.
What is nuclear energy?
Nuclear energy is produced when an atom is split (fission) or combined (fusion). As of today only nuclear fission has proved to be a technologically feasible option for nuclear energy, although work on the development of fusion energy is ongoing.
Nuclear energy is produced by either combining or separating radioactive isotopes of particular elements such as uranium.
Uranium was utilized as an energy source due to the vast production and development of nuclear weapons such as an atomic or hydrogen bomb.
To produce nuclear energy from a fission reaction, a neutron is directed at an atom of an element (often uranium or plutonium) which triggers a chain reaction of neutrons bombarding each other.
The energy released in this chain reaction sustains the reaction, thus creating a continually replenishing source of nuclear energy. The reaction creates heat which can be converted into electricity using a steam turbine.
The other type of nuclear energy reaction occurs during a “fusion” reaction, where two atomic nuclei are directed at each other at extremely high speeds to combine while releasing large amounts of energy.
Currently nuclear energy accounts for approximately one-tenth of the energy produced worldwide and one-fifth of the energy produced in the United States.
Advantages of nuclear energy
#1 Small greenhouse gas footprint
Proponents of nuclear energy would argue that despite the potential future shortages, it is still worth investing in nuclear energy today. They would argue that nuclear energy is one of the few forms of energy that has such a low environmental impact.
And this is a potent argument indeed, not only due to the need to address climate change and its catastrophic impacts but because we also need clean air, water and land.
Producing nuclear power creates minimal greenhouse emissions compared to energy generated from fossil fuels. In the process of producing nuclear energy there are no emissions of carbon dioxide or methane-the two most common greenhouse gases. This is one the greatest benefits of nuclear power.
Given that nuclear energy stations do not produce air pollutants or greenhouse gases when they generate electricity, this makes them an attractive choice to radically reducing CO2 emissions and curbing climate change. There is also evidence that the life-cycle emissions from nuclear energy are comparable to other non-emitting sources of electricity like wind, solar and hydropower .
Nuclear power also doesn’t rely on fossil fuels and isn’t influenced by fluctuating oil and gas costs. Coal and natural gas power plants release carbon dioxide into the air, which causes a number of environmental issues.
#2 Low operating costs
The first thing to acknowledge is the fact that our world relies on energy both in terms of volume but also in terms of needing a constant stream of energy to function. It also needs to be affordable so both governments and people can access it.
It is important to remember that even today, about 1.2 billion people — nearly as many as the entire population of India — still live without access to electricity . What is more, while energy demand is stable in some places in the world, in others it has risen exponentially over the last few decades.
For example, in China energy consumption increased by 600 percent over the last 20 years . So in response to the question where can we find affordable, reliable and constant or potentially increasing volumes of energy, nuclear energy provides some clear wins.
Nuclear power produces inexpensive electricity as the cost of uranium, used as a fuel in this process, is low. Having said that, setting up nuclear power plant is expensive and to recover cost and investment the plant needs to run for several years and decades.
Once a nuclear power plant is established, the power is cheap to produce since the chain reaction allows the production of energy to be maintained for extended periods.
Capital expenditure tends to decrease over time for nuclear power plants, however maintenance can present a considerable long-term cost.
#3 Reliable source of energy
Nuclear power plants can run uninterrupted for over a year, making nuclear power one of the most resilient energy producing systems for as long as a meltdown does not occur.
#4 Nuclear power plants run at extremely high capacity
Compare to other sources of energy, particularly non-renewable alternatives, nuclear energy is more efficient.
In other words, the amount of fuel required to power a nuclear plant is comparatively less than what is required to power other plants. Energy released by nuclear fission is approximately ten million times greater than the amount of energy released by a fossil fuel atom .
This means that a nuclear power plant can generate roughly 90 percent of its maximum energy output. In comparison, the next most efficient energy source is natural gas at 55 percent.
Disadvantages of nuclear energy
#1 Radioactive waste byproduct
One of the major concerns with nuclear energy is the waste. Both in terms of the by-products and waste generated by the process of making nuclear energy but also the disposal of plants after they have completed their life-cycle.
It is estimated that a nuclear power plant creates 20 metric tons of nuclear fuel per year, and with that comes a lot of nuclear waste which is usually processed and buried in specialized containers in the Earth. Given the slow rate at which radioactive levels decay, this does not seem like a sustainable way forward.
Radioactive waste created from nuclear energy production cannot be properly disposed of and will remain intact for very long periods of time (thousands of years).
#2 Leaks or explosions present extreme dangers well beyond the plant (Chernobyl, Fukushima)
If a nuclear power plant experiences a malfunction, it presents nearby inhabitants (although winds can carry toxins for thousands of miles) with a milieu of health risks and other.
This was the case after the Chernobyl accident in the Ukraine in 1986 and the meltdown at Fukushima in Japan during 2011.
The Chernobyl accident of 1986 in Ukraine was the worst nuclear accident in history. For the accident at Chernobyl, cancer cases related to the event were evident all the way into Western Europe. Its harmful effects can still be seen today.
#3 Carcinogenic threats to workers and nearby communities
One of the most serious disadvantages of nuclear power is that the power plant workers are exposed to dangers of radiation if proper precautions are not followed.
#4 High upfront capital costs
Establishing a new nuclear power plant is considerably cost prohibitive and often requires heavy tax subsidies which fall onto taxpayers.
The high investment needed to build a nuclear reactor means that to make this a viable investment, the reactor will need to run for several decades which risks locking a country’s energy supply to one particular energy source and technology.
#5 Highly complex systems
The level of detail and safety necessary to properly maintain nuclear power plants is considerable.
#6 Destruction of nearby ecosystems
Beyond a direct explosion or leak, nuclear power plants threaten nearby ecosystems due to the acidification of soils and waterways via acid rain and groundwater intrusions.
What is more, the extraction of uranium in the first place is not a clean process. Transporting it also represents a pollution hazard which of course is linked to one of the biggest concerns regarding nuclear energy; namely ensuring it is safe to operate and use given the potential for accidents which can seriously harm people and the environment.
#7 Nuclear feedstocks are finite
As other non-renewable energy sources such as oil, the fuel required to produce nuclear energy is not infinite.
Uranium is a non-renewable resource and as such can be depleted. As reassuring as estimates that with the current rate of consumption of uranium it could last for another 70-80 years, this does not provide as long-term future for our energy supply as we would wish for .
So a major drawback to nuclear energy is the potential that it will not be around in a century or so given a lack of uranium.
Further, the feedstocks are only found in limited places on the planet, posing volatility for energy security and consistent supplies. The collection, production, and disposal of these elements also poses extreme environmental and human health risks.
#8 Security risks
Nuclear energy is also used as a high-powered weaponry such as the atomic or hydrogen bomb. As such, nuclear energy resources and feedstock (i.e. uranium or plutonium) are a prime target for militant groups looking for enhanced weapons.
The outcome: Cons outweigh nuclear energy pros
As it stands the dangers of nuclear energy outweigh the benefits and must therefore be addressed and new opportunities be pursued.
If nuclear fusion can be harnessed, the decay of radioactive waste material will be considerably shorter.
Existing nuclear plants that harness energy from fission reactions could be converted to consume this waste and convert to energy using fusion reactions.
However, in light of the risks of nuclear energy, the global trend has been to shutdown or “decommission” nuclear reactors (over 300 have been decommissioned worldwide in the past decade).
Despite the advantages of nuclear power, it is evident that a shift away from nuclear energy is essential if we are to create a sustainable and safe energy future.
So the picture is far from black and white: there are certainly many arguments for and against nuclear energy but they are often tainted by the bigger challenges we have to face. Ultimately the question is whether nuclear energy can help us reach a more sustainable future.
Is nuclear energy an interim solution that can help us reduce emissions while we seek to invest in better technology for renewables? Or will nuclear energy lock us into investing in nuclear power plants for years at the cost of developing other more efficient and environmentally-friendly energy technologies?