What is Nuclear Energy? What are its limitations?
Written by: Yousef Khoury
Edited by: Justin Weir
The difficult task of decarbonization begs the use of nuclear energy. It produces zero carbon emissions, generating energy by the splitting of atoms in a reactor (Nuclear Energy Institute, 2022). It allows reliable production of electricity that can continuously operate for eighteen to twenty-four months at a time (Nuclear Energy Institute, 2022). From the first commercial nuclear power stations that began operations in the 1950s, nuclear energy has come a long way to becoming today’s second largest global source of low-carbon power, with over 50 countries housing power plants (World Nuclear Association, 2022). In the United States alone, 93 reactors produce 20% of the entirety of the nation’s electricity (Nuclear Energy Institute, 2022).
Nuclear uses low-enriched uranium in the form of “small, hard ceramic pellets that are packaged into long, vertical tubes (GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy, 2022).” Just one uranium pellet contains as much energy as a ton of coal and can provide up to five years of heat for power generation (GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy, 2022). The uranium fuel is targeted at the atomic level, where the nucleus is split through nuclear fission. Splitting the nucleus releases vast amounts of heat energy, generating steam to spin a turbine. This electricity is then distributed across land areas via commercial power lines (Papiewski, 2017).
Although a reliable, carbon-free energy source, nuclear comes with considerations. A primary concern is the production of radioactive waste, such as uranium mill tailings and used reactor fuel (Energy Information Association, 2021). This poses a threat to local biodiversity and overall public health due to potential radiation exposure, requiring adequate investment – at a hefty price tag – in appropriate waste management. The U.S. spends approximately $500 million every year to safeguard nuclear waste, with this amount only projected to increase with further accumulation (Jacobson, 2021). However, it should be noted that supplying the power needs of a million people generates just three cubic metres of vitrified high-level waste per year, while a power station of the same size using coal would generate 300 thousand tons of ash and over 6 million tons of carbon dioxide per year (World Nuclear Association, n.d.). Additionally, the environmental impacts of increased uranium mining must be considered, as it has been shown to contaminate the environment with radioactive dust as well as increase the levels of background radiation (Dewar, Harvey, & Vakil, 2013).
Nuclear energy is an intriguing path to decreasing emissions, but it comes at a price. Governments and energy authorities must consider a wide variety of social, economic, political, and environmental factors, unlike with renewables.
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