Nuclear energy is one of the most controversial topics in the world at current. There’s both risk and reward associated with this powerful source of energy.
The real question is whether disasters like Chernobyl and Fukushima should be enough to divert us entirely from the nuclear option when it comes to power.
So, let’s explore the advantages and disadvantages of nuclear power, and see how what place it might have in the years to come as fossil fuels are slowly overtaken.
What forms of nuclear energy currently exist
There are two types of nuclear reaction which can potentially release enough power for humans to harness.
These are fission and fusion reactions. Fission is the splitting of a larger atom, which releases a ton of energy while fusion fuses two smaller atoms together and also creates a lot of energy.
As of the current date, only fission reactors are feasible. While fusion has been used in the past, primarily to create heavier radioactive materials for weaponized purposes, it still takes more energy than it releases which would make for a net loss of energy if used as a source for a power plant.
Nearly every power plant currently being used uses either uranium or plutonium as their fissile material.
Thorium reactors are also a possibility, but they haven’t yet seen extremely widespread usage and are instead limited to smaller scale reactors and experiments at the current time.
These reactors function in the same way as basically every form of power: heated water spins a steam turbine which powers a generator.
The essential aspects of the reactor really aren’t all that different from most other power sources, thermal energy is converted to kinetic energy, which powers a generator. The result is actually remarkably clean, but as we’ll see in a bit there are also some serious problems with nuclear power.
The pros of nuclear energy
The pros of nuclear energy have led to it being one of the leading energy sources in the world, despite the strong opposition it has faced in many areas.
From a paper perspective, nuclear energy looks to be almost perfect:
- Low cost-While the upfront costs associated with nuclear energy are quite high, it’s quite competitive when compared to other fuel-based reactors. It actually works out to be cheaper than fossil fuels or most renewables by the time the reactor is functioning.
- Low pollution-Because the energy is converted into thermal energy and used to heat steam, without combusting hydrocarbons, the pollution released by the plants is extremely minimal. We’ll talk about the waste material in a moment, but the environmental running costs of nuclear power is quite low.
- Reliable-Nuclear power puts out a constant, predictable amount of energy. It’s also flexible, allowing the plant’s energy to be easily raised or lowered depending on the needs of the area and the amount of supplemental energy available.
- High energy density-Ounce for ounce, nuclear fuels provide more energy than anything else available to us. Even fossil fuels rapidly start to look less efficient when you realize that uranium contains millions of times more potential energy for the same amount of material.
Nuclear energy looks great on paper, but there are a couple of things which need to be taken into account before we start dreaming solely of a nuclear future.
The cons of nuclear energy
There are really only two major problems with nuclear power, but they’re enough to set back the majority of people’s opinions on it.
The truth is, accidents happen. There have been several high-profile incidents since the inception of nuclear power, with truly disastrous results in the long term. Many have also had associated fatalities, and while the cost of just one human life is quite high the serious problem comes from the long-term environmental effects.
This first problem is still associated with the second one of course: the problem of nuclear waste.
What's more, we still don’t really have a way to dispose of the high-level radioactive waste which comes from these plants. Quite often, the only viable means of disposal is to store it for upwards of half a century, allowing for sufficient radioactive decay before it’s disposed of elsewhere.
The only real option currently on the table is deep geological dispersal. There are sites slated for the disposal of these nasty waste types, but the governments in charge of things still face quite a bit of protest in many places in the world.
There’s a somewhat more subtle disadvantage as well: the very word nuclear recalls the horror of the Cold War in some places. There is a lot of public opposition to the use of nuclear power in many places, which makes the whole thing a regulatory nightmare in addition to the usual logistical challenges which face this form of power.
The future of nuclear power in the world
Whether or not the future will include nuclear power is still somewhat up for debate.
Advancements in the technology are naturally going to have to happen, the estimate for uranium puts it at about 80 years before the current reserves are exhausted which will spell the end for most of the world’s nuclear power supply.
On the other hand, even without getting into the possible future of fusion-based power plants there is growing interest in thorium based reactors and some plans for them across the world since the proof-of-concept is definitely there.
Thorium’s waste products are less extreme than those which come from uranium and plutonium based reactors, which makes them an attractive alternative. In addition to that, the material itself is quite common throughout the crust of the Earth and it’s a much more sustainable option for the long run.
There is also the possibility of breeder reactors, in which case fuel will become mostly irrelevant as the cycles contained within can last for millennia.
Unfortunately, these problems are fairly large. There is research in place for some of the more advanced reactor types, but the problems of accidents will remain in place and a single misstep with nuclear energy can cause widespread damage.
It’s far more likely that nuclear power will begin to form the basis of a post-fossil fuel energy economy before being slowly phased out and replaced with whatever else may come.
The place of nuclear energy in the world
While it seems quite unlikely that nuclear power is going to be the saving grace of the planet, at least with our current understanding of it, it may make a passable intermediate while fossil fuels are being weaned off of.
Like all of the problems which face world power production, there’s no single solution which stands out from the rest in a big way. Instead everything will have to be integrated into a relatively seamless whole.
Nuclear power is catching on in many places in the world, and it seems that many of the mistakes in the past can be learned from through improving the placement of power plants and their safety measures but it’s unlikely that all of the big accidents are already behind us.
After all, on a long enough measure nearly everything breaks down.
It would seem, at this time that the wisest use of nuclear power would be its proliferation as a widespread alternative to the infrastructure in place for fossil fuels, with the intention of slowly weaning off to more renewable energy sources.
Instead of stepping away from nuclear energy entirely, it should be looked at as a valuable stop-gap measure, the low pollution and decreasing chances of safety risks make them a great option in the short term in a world which is increasingly moving towards green energy.
If some of the more advanced reactor types end up being feasible, then it may even provide a couple of centuries of clean energy before it will have to be phased out entirely.
- Nuclear power looks absolutely perfect on paper until the disadvantages come into play. It’s clean, efficient, and cheap, while requiring minimal logistics due to the energy density of fissile materials.
- There are some major risks associated with nuclear power, since a simple misstep can create a very large problem whenever radiation is involved. Without accidents, however, the only real drawback is lack of long-term sustainability and the creation of waste which is dangerous to dispose of.
- As a replacement for dwindling fossil fuel reserves and a measure against increasing climate change, nuclear power’s current state has a definite niche.
- Future reactor types may increase the fuel cycle of nuclear power to a large degree, enabling its use as a stop-gap measure for centuries instead of decades.
- The risks associated with nuclear power certainly don’t seem to outstrip its usefulness at the current point in time.