Nuclear energy is a phrase we hear often, but many of us are unsure exactly what it is. For some, understanding nuclear energy takes us back to our high school days of chemistry, learning about atoms and what makes up everything around us.
This is especially true with understanding exactly how nuclear power works and why it is so important. We have gathered some information in the hopes of helping you better understand nuclear energy, nuclear power, and the benefits of this non-fossil fuel.
Nuclear energy is energy that is found in the core of an atom, which are tiny particles that make up gases, liquids and solids. The core of an atom contains protons and neutrons, surrounded by electrons.
While protons carry a positive charge and electrons carry a negative charge, neutrons do not have an electrical charge. This means that there is a lot of energy inside the core of the atom, which can be released when the atom is broken apart. This is called nuclear fission.
Nuclear power plants use uranium atoms to conduct nuclear fission. In this process, a neutron collides with a uranium atom and tears it apart, releasing energy as heat and radiation.
How does nuclear power work?
Nuclear power plants heat water to produce steam, which is used to spin large turbines that generate electricity. The heat that is produced during nuclear fission then heats the water. Nuclear fission, as discussed above, takes place in the reactor of a nuclear power plant and at the center of that reactor is the core, which contains the uranium fuel.
In the United States, nuclear power plants are used to generate nearly 20 percent of electricity. Last year, there were 99 operating nuclear reactors and 61 nuclear power plants in 30 states, according to the US Energy Information Administration (EIA). The US generates more nuclear power than any other country in the world.
Is nuclear power clean?
Nuclear power plants do not produce air pollution or carbon dioxide, which are two byproducts made by fossil fuel-fired power plants. It is worth noting, however that the process for mining uranium requires a large amount of energy. The power plants also require a large amount of metal and concrete, which also use a lot of energy to manufacture.
Nuclear power plants also produce radioactive waste, which can be dangerous to humans for thousands of years. According to the EIA, radioactive waste is classified either as high-level or low-level waste.
This ranges from the relatively low radioactivity of for uranium waste to the high radioactivity of spent reactor fuel. Most of the waste from a nuclear power plant has a relatively low level of radioactivity.
Nuclear energy benefits
Because the United States is the leader in nuclear energy, it helps to maintain safety around the world. Nuclear energy also provides constant carbon-free electricity, which goes a long way in protecting the environment.
Since the U.S. pioneered nuclear energy, it can respond to growing clean energy demand with advanced nuclear reactors. Of course, it also provides thousands of well-paying, stable jobs and supports local economies.
Nuclear Energy pros and cons
As with any developing technology, there are both pros and cons to using it.
As we have discussed previously, there are a number of pros to using nuclear energy. For example, nuclear energy has relatively low costs. The initial construction costs of nuclear power plants are significant, and there is the need for processing uranium for nuclear fuel, and on top of that the cost of getting rid of waste.
This is in the pro’s column, however, because nuclear energy is cost-competitive and generating electricity in nuclear reactors is cheaper than generating electricity from oil gas and coal.
While we may only have about 80 years’ worth of uranium left to use in the nuclear reactors, another potential fuel is being considered. Thorium is a much greener alternative to uranium, and is already being considered for use in countries around the world.
While it is not a renewable energy source, nuclear energy could be sustainable if there is a way to learn how to control atomic fusion and regenerate the fuel. This is not currently a solution, but could become one down the road as challenges are ironed out.
Nuclear power plants also release the lowest greenhouse gases, compared to coal, gas and other electricity-generating plans. Carbon dioxide, which is released at other plants, has been known to significantly impact Earth’s atmosphere. Nuclear power plants release less carbon dioxide as well.
Another positive aspect of nuclear energy is the fact that it has the ability to provide a significant amount of jobs to local communities. One nuclear plant could provide up to 700 permanent jobs and thousands of temporary jobs during the construction phase.
On the other side of the coin, there are a number of cons to using nuclear energy as well.
Most notably, there is the possible of an accident happening at a nuclear power plant. The effects of such an incident were never clearer than at the Chernobyl accident.
The catastrophic accident happened in April 1986 at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Soviet Ukraine. The accident happened during a safety test simulated a blackout power failure, which led to a massive explosion and fire.
It is estimated that up to 30,000 people died due to the accident and it will take a number of years to fully understand the extent to which this accident affected the health of people as far east at Europe. In addition to the very real risks of accidents, the nuclear fuel process – such as mining, enrichment and waste management – causes air pollution.
Another major concern with nuclear power plants is that they can pose a real threat to national security. Plants themselves can be targets of terrorist attacks, and in the wrong hands nuclear energy can be manipulated to become a very real threat.
How is nuclear waste handled?
According to How Stuff Works, radioactive waste can last from a few hours to hundreds of years in the form of gas, liquids or solids. If it is improperly disposed of, it can harm the environment for hundreds of years.
Low-level waste, such as that from hospitals or labs, can often be incinerated in a container that is buried in a landfill. Waste in the form of reactor components and chemicals can be solidified in concrete and buried deep underground.
High-level waste, or liquid waste, can be sealed inside stainless steel container buried underground only at government-approved locations.
Interestingly, nuclear power is the only energy-producing technology that takes full responsibility for handling its waste, according to the World Nuclear Association.
nuclear energy around the world.
According to World Nuclear Association, there are 450 nuclear plants in operation in 30 countries worldwide. Nuclear energy provides about 11 percent of the world’s electricity. In 2017, 13 countries produced at least one quarter of their electricity from nuclear power plants.
Some countries produce even more electricity from nuclear power. France gets nearly three quarters of its electricity from nuclear energy. Hungary, Slovakia and Ukraine get one third or more, and South Korea normally gets about 30 percent of its energy from nuclear power plants, according to the World Nuclear Association.
In North America, Canada has 19 operable nuclear reactors, which generated 15 percent of the country’s electricity in 2017. In Mexico there are two nuclear reactors which in 2017 generated 6 percent of the country’s electricity. The US has 98 operable nuclear reactors, which in 2017 generated 20 percent of the country’s electricity.