The inclusion of nuclear energy in the renewable energy category is of major debate.
While some argue that its lower carbon emissions should make it valued in the renewable energy list, others argue that because uranium (which is used in the nuclear process to make energy) is a finite resource, it shouldn’t be included with renewable energy.
Another argument declares the nuclear energy process leaves behind nuclear waste—a harmful, radioactive pollutant. The pollution goes directly against the idea of renewable energy, which is clean, infinite, and safer for the world and people.
Either way, nuclear energy is a contender in the energy field and should be considered and weighed as an option.
How does nuclear energy work?
Nuclear reactors work similar to fossil fuel power plants in that it uses a form of energy to create heat, turning water into steam.
Fossil fuel power plants burn coal, natural gas, or oil to create heat. Nuclear power plants create heat by splitting atoms in a process called nuclear fission.
Essentially, nuclear energy is created through fission.
When a large atom splits in two under specific circumstances, it releases energy. In order to split an atom, it must be hit with a neutron. As this happens, other neutrons are released which then split other atoms, creating a chain reaction that keeps releasing energy.
Nuclear reactors use enriched uranium as fuel. Uranium, a radioactive element, is found in most rocks.
Nuclear power plants mainly consist of reactors.
The main components of reactors are as follows:
- The core: This part of the reactor holds the nuclear fuel and creates the heat. Inside is low-enriched uranium, structural materials, and control systems. Additionally, it can contain fuel pins numbering in the hundreds of thousands.
- The coolant: The coolant is the material used (usually water but can be, liquid sodium or helium among other things) to transfer heat from the fuel to the turbine as it passes through the core.
- The turbine: After the coolant transfers the heat to the turbine, the turbine creates electricity from the heat (similar to coal-powered/fossil fuel plants).
- The containment: Usually made of steel-reinforced, high-density concrete, these dome structures keep the reactor away from outside influences and the environment.
- The cooling towers: These towers are used as a place to put the extra heat that can’t be converted to electricity (this product releases clean water vapor).
Nuclear energy creates nuclear waste which must be disposed of properly in order to be safe.
As of now, nuclear waste in the USA is put underwater in “spent fuel pools near nuclear power plants.”
Eventually, it is desired that the DOE will license the Yucca Mountain repository so that the waste can be stored deep under the ground. Yucca Mountain is located on the Nevada test site and the ground in the area is geologically stable enough to handle the waste, therefore, it is an ideal location for nuclear waste burial.
However, it is only so big and they would quickly need to find another repository to put waste.
Nuclear waste composes only 1% of total industrial waste in countries that have nuclear power.
It does not stay radioactive for too long before it diminishes into non-radioactive elements. The cost of managing nuclear waste is relatively small and is dealt with internally by those consuming the electricity.
All nuclear waste has proven technologies in being dealt with and contained safely.
What can nuclear energy be used for?
Nuclear energy produced in reactors contributes about 20% of total electricity in the USA.
The USA has about 100 reactors (there are about 400 world-wide), and they produce energy constantly without emitting greenhouse gasses and pollutants.
After nuclear energy was used in WWII, it was used to power submarines’ engines for over a year without needing to refuel. Nuclear energy has the power to sustain human electricity needs in a clean, sustainable way for a very long time.
What are potential problems?
As discussed, the nuclear energy process leaves behind nuclear waste—a harmful, radioactive pollutant (though the amount is very small compared to other industrial wastes).
Nuclear waste has been effectively and safely managed (discussed above and below), but it doesn’t quite reach a level of satisfaction for IRENA (International Renewable Energy Agency) to add it to their renewable energy list.
Though there have been very few accidents (only 3 major accidents) with nuclear power plants, the impact tends to be big enough or scary enough that society in general fears nuclear energy.
This, coupled with ideas and images of nuclear energy being associated with devastating bombs and warfare, makes selling the idea of nuclear energy difficult to the general population as well as some governments.
Why nuclear energy?
Nuclear energy needs fine-tuning, especially in regards to management of nuclear waste and its finite resource, before it may be officially included in IRENA’s (International Renewable Energy Agency) renewable energy list.
Despite the waste, nuclear waste is incredibly little compared to other waste produced by fossil fuels (only about 1% of total energy waste of countries with nuclear power).
Additionally, nuclear waste only stays radioactive for a small time and eventually diminishes into non-radioactive elements. Whereas other industrial wastes stay harmful indefinitely.
It is clear that nuclear waste is being carefully maintained and managed in technologically sound, safe ways.
And when its radioactive decay and small waste amount is considered, it is easy to see the reasons why many want nuclear energy to be included in the list of renewable energy resources.
When you put history in perspective, nuclear energy, in the last 50 decades, has not caused serious health and environmental problems aside from the three main accidents.
Fossil fuel plants and waste on the other hand are often overlooked. Flyash and bottom ash (waste from coal energy) are often heavy in toxic metals known to cause health problems. Bottom ash is buried sometimes with no regard to its effects on groundwater. Groundwater pollution is not uncommon with arsenic, cobalt, boron, and mercury. Furthermore, fossil fuels also emit greenhouse gas emissions and other pollutants that damage the earth and people’s health negatively.
While nuclear energy power plant costs are very high (much higher than coal power plants) because of all its safety systems, the fuel costs are much less than coal/fossil fuel.
Therefore, it is an investment up front which eventually pays for itself. Not only financially but also through clean air and healthier lives.
Despite seeming to be the most feared energy, nuclear energy is actually quite safe and has a lot of opportunity to enhance human life and protect the earth’s environment.
Proper management and disposal of waste is important for nuclear energy. With additional technology and growth, nuclear energy has a lot of potential.