Energy of the future: nuclear energy


December 18, 2014

Kaboom! It’s the first thought that comes to mind when many people hear the word nuclear. However, nuclear energy is used for more than bombs. It is one of the most promising paths for the future of energy.

There is no doubt that the world is currently in an energy crisis. Although crude oil has hit an all-time low, which has been great for the consumer, we are running out of resources. We have already passed peak oil – the maximum rate of oil production, and are slowly running out of resources. According to British Petroleum, there is enough oil in their reserves to last 53.3 years at the current rate of consumption. This is a dramatic statistic. Within our lifetime, we may see the end of all oil! If this issue is not addressed now, the results will be catastrophic.

The world needs a new source of energy, something that nuclear energy will be able to fulfill. Many people become hesitant when they think of nuclear energy. They conjure up images such as Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, and atomic bombs. People unreasonably define an entire branch of science by its tragedies. All must move past the emotional aspect and recognize the true potential of nuclear power. The switch to nuclear power is necessary, as it is the most feasible and understood method to produce energy; without switching to nuclear power, the world will be in disarray when we run out of fossil fuels.

Although there are two types of nuclear reactions – fusion and fission, only nuclear fission is currently sustainable. In simplest terms, nuclear fission occurs when a special element, such as uranium, is shot with neutrons. It then spits out more neutrons and extreme amounts of energy. This process continues as a chain reaction, until all of the uranium is used up.

The greatest advantage of nuclear energy is its sheer power. The immense power of nuclear energy is astounding. To illustrate this claim, consider this: one kilogram of coal can produce about eight kilowatt hours of heat, while one kilogram of uranium can produce twenty-four million kilowatt hours. Uranium is three million times more powerful than coal!

In addition to the raw power of nuclear energy, it is the only energy alternative that is reliable. Most alternatives are only usable in certain optimal circumstances. They are dependent on things such as climate or location. For example, solar power is only functional while the sun is out. Especially in the winter months when days are shorter and much darker, solar power is useless. Wind power is even more unreliable. It is only functional when the wind is blowing in a specific direction and with immense strength.

Nuclear energy is reliable in that it never needs optimal conditions. It can run day and night, regardless of temperature or weather conditions. It is important to note that no energy provider generates power all the time, regardless of the source. However, on average, nuclear power plants only need maintenance once every six weeks. Even while it is being refueled, a nuclear power plant can still run, albeit at a fraction of max capacity. Nuclear energy has outstanding reliability. It is capable of running all day, every day, as opposed to other alternatives that are only useful in certain situations.

Nuclear energy is also extremely efficient. Efficiency is measured as the ratio of a source’s actual energy output versus its theoretical output of energy. This ratio is called the capacity factor. As a testament to nuclear efficiency, a study of the United Kingdom’s nuclear power plants revealed that they were capable of running at 75% capacity. Sources indicate that the nuclear facilities in the United States run at approximately 90% capacity. These factors are impressive compared to other energy sources: natural gas with 50.3% capacity, coal with 58.9% capacity, and wind with 32.3% capacity. Nuclear energy is almost twice as efficient as the current energy sources!

Another aspect of energy efficiency is transportation efficiency. In a typical fossil-fuel power plant, the energy source must be transported to the plant. For example, a coal power plant must be refueled with 15,000 tons of coal, on average, every 24 hours. In sharp contrast, a nuclear power plant must be refueled with only 2,000 tons of uranium every 18-24 months! As can be seen, it is much more expensive to transport fossil-fuels than uranium.

A unique attribute of nuclear energy is that it produces no greenhouse gases. The topic of global warming is often seen in political issues. Although some prefer to distort the true effects of global warming, both over- and under-exaggerating, it is happening. Greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide trap heat within Earth’s atmosphere, causing the planet to warm. One longterm effect of global warming is climate change, which can be devastating to an ecosystem. Fossil-fuel power plants are responsible for 34% of all carbon dioxide emissions. Unlike other forms of energy, nuclear energy is the only feasible energy source that produces no air pollution.

Of course, an energy source is not suitable if it puts humans into danger, but nuclear energy does not pose an imminent threat. Unfortunately, nuclear energy receives much bad press because of the infamous nuclear weaponry. Most of these opinions are unfair, as people do not fully understand nuclear energy. It is naïve to believe that an energy source should not be used because of its capability to be misused.

Weapons powered by fossil-fuels have been utilized much more often than nuclear weapons, which have only been used twice. For example, many conventional bombs have been used with much more devastating effects, but the fuel sources powering these weapons receive no critique. Also, many weapons such as fighter jets and tanks, which run on fossil-fuels, have caused far more damage, yet fossil-fuels are not treated as a threat.

Many people also fear nuclear energy as a result of the accidents of Chernobyl and, more recently, Fukushima. Although we must work to prevent these accidents from occurring, it is important to realize that these were only two incidents in the history of nuclear power. In fact, nuclear power plant accidents are actually less dangerous than fossil-fuel plant accidents. According to the Clean Air Task Force, approximately 13,000 people are killed each year from fine particles released from coal plants. In contrast, the death toll from the Chernobyl accident is expected to reach 9,000. More shockingly, according to NASA, nuclear energy has actually prevented 1.8 million fossil-fuel related deaths between 1971-2009!

The only slight issue with nuclear energy is its waste products. It is well-known that radioactive waste is dangerous. However, steps are taken to minimize the risk of disposing such waste. Each unique waste product has its own half-life – the amount of time it takes for one half of a radioactive isotope to decay – and magnitude of radioactivity. Fortunately, the more dangerous the waste, the quicker it decays. Currently, the method for disposing high-level radioactive waste is as follows: it is solidified then placed in a Pyrex cube, surrounded by steel, then stored for burial deep underground. The interesting thing about nuclear waste is, once it has fully decayed, decades from now, it can be utilized as a resource once again.

People must put their emotions aside when discussing alternate energy sources. It is imperative that, on the brink of the energy crisis, we find a new source of energy that is efficient, reliable, and safe.  The fact that nuclear energy provides immense power in a single pellet of uranium, emits no greenhouse gases, and is safer than other energy sources makes it the most promising alternative. The world must make the choice to use nuclear power to better humanity, rather than endanger it. Nuclear power is the future of energy.

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