Nuclear power is a form of energy present in the central place (nuclear) of an atom. The energy is extracted through the bombardment of the atom into two through a process known as nuclear fission. During the bombardment process, large amounts of energy are generated which is then used for different purposes. As opposed to alternative sources of energy, nuclear energy produces no carbon, and thus it is said to be environmental friendly. However, environmental experts argue that such energy poses a greater danger to the environment as compared to oil and coal in the long term.
Nuclear energy was first developed in the 20th century after it was discovered that radioactive elements would produce high amounts of energy. However, this form of energy became best known in the 1930s after nuclear fission was discovered. Nuclear power became widely used in the world after the Second World War. This type of energy has so far gained popularity today due to its ability to produce high amounts of energy and reduce pollution.
This paper explores the benefits and demerits of nuclear energy. The paper starts with an introduction on nuclear energy before exploring why such energy is important. It then highlights different aspects surrounding nuclear energy coupled with its advantages and disadvantages before giving a conclusion.
In the contemporary world, nuclear energy has been used to provide electric power in homes, thus reducing the overreliance on natural resources for energy. In addition to electrical energy, nuclear power has fuel that was previously being used in aircrafts and ships. When first developed, nuclear power was seen as an invention that could offer a viable solution to the ever-looming problem of energy shortage due to the increased energy consumption across the world. Nuclear energy is one example of energy that is produced technologically to supplement other natural sources of energy.
It contributes up to 10% of the world’s energy1. The majority of countries across the world have embraced the use of nuclear power. However, the United States is a key producer and consumer of this form of energy with nuclear power forming about 20% of the energy used in the country. Nuclear power has its own advantages and disadvantages, which can be best illustrated based on the effects that it has on the environment. Its producers argue that this type of energy is the most reliable since natural resources such as oil and coal used to produce other forms of energy will soon be exhausted1.
Why nuclear energy is important
Nuclear energy involves extraction of energy through the bombardment of the nucleus of uranium atoms. The process is referred to as nuclear fission and it releases great amounts of energy. Its production was fuelled by the high-energy requirements associated with the ever-rising population all over the world coupled with the need to conserve the environment.
Nuclear energy is the cleanest of all types of energy sources and it does not cause pollution to the environment. In addition to supplementing other energy sources and meeting the energy needs of the people, the need to create a world free of pollution can also be said to be another factor that has seen most countries invest heavily in the production of this type of energy.
The consumption of nuclear energy has been on the rise in the recent past. Experts have supported the use of nuclear energy since it provides a solution to energy shortages in the world both in the short run and in the long term. When it was first introduced, people only looked at its positive side, thus ignoring the repercussions that the technology would later have in the future2.
Different scholars have openly argued that nuclear energy will cause more harm than good in the long term and that its developers are only short sighted in meeting the short-term energy requirements. On the other hand, its inventors strongly differ with these claims by insisting that the energy will provide a long-term solution to the problem with minimal costs if well handled.
The purpose of this research is to analyze nuclear energy and provide an overview of the effectiveness of the new technology in providing a lasting solution to energy shortages. This essay will give a walk over approach to the advantages and disadvantages of the technology and come up with a conclusion on whether the energy source is actually a solution to the problem of energy shortages currently being experienced in the world as the producers assert.
Nuclear energy reliance
The United States and the European countries are the major producers and consumers of nuclear energy. Specifically, the United States and France take the lead in the production and consumption of this form of energy possibly due to the technological advancements and support of new inventions in the two countries. In general, the European Union has a consumption rate of 30% of nuclear energy, which is an indicator that the European countries rely heavily on this type of energy2.
As of 2007, France had 16 operational nuclear plants that had the ability to produce 80% of the electrical energy needs of the country. However, not all European countries rely on this power source as countries such as Italy and Ireland have banned the production of this type of energy due to fear of losing their citizen’s lives as a result of accidents that may arise during the production process.
Some countries, having realized the dangers of this form of energy, enacted laws governing the production and use of nuclear energy while others completely banned its production. For example, Italy has illegalized the production of nuclear power following the Fukushima accident that occurred in Japan in 2010. On the other hand, Germany has in place a policy aimed at abandoning the production of this form of energy by 20203.
Before the Fukushima accident in 2011, nuclear energy production had a rising trend and statistics indicated that it provided about 10% of all the energy consumed across the world3. The statistics also revealed that there were more than 400 operational plants across the world in 2011. However, following the aforementioned accident, the world recorded the greatest decrease in nuclear power production as Japan, Italy, and Germany closed some of their plants thus cutting down their respective energy outputs.
Nuclear power has earned the confidence of people all over the world due to its low cost and conservation of the environment. The nuclear energy industry’s revival will emerge in future due to the ever-rising prices of fossil fuels3. Additionally, with the ongoing campaign aimed at containing environmental pollution, nuclear power is seen as a clean form of energy since it does not cause direct pollution. Nuclear power is also said to be reliable since it is projected that fossil fuels will be exhausted in the near future.
However, nuclear power production faces challenges due to its long-term disadvantages if not used and managed properly. It is believed that the waste arising from the production process is highly radioactive and remains harmful for a long period and can have adverse effects if not properly disposed. The new technology has also suffered a blow in its initial stages due to accidents that have claimed lives across the world like the Fukushima disaster.
Advantages of nuclear power
Efficiency and speed of production are the main advantages of nuclear energy. The reactors involved in the process of producing nuclear energy are efficient and they can produce high quantities of energy within a short time and with only a small quantity of reactors. For example, the fission of a single atom of uranium produces 60 million times of the energy released when a carbon atom burns3. This major advantage has seen many countries invest heavily in the nuclear energy sector to reap the benefits that accrue.
Reliability is the other outstanding benefit of this form of energy. Nuclear energy is produced from the reaction of chemicals as opposed to other forms of energy that rely on the weather conditions3. Nuclear energy can thus be produced at any time when needed. Most of the traditional energy sources such as wind and solar depend heavily on the weather and in case the weather conditions are unfavorable they cannot function appropriately.
The other advantage of nuclear power is that it is nature-friendly, as it emits no gases as opposed to its fossil fuels counterparts. It is credited as the cleanest form of energy since it does not emit gases such as carbon dioxide and methane produced by the other forms of energy. Methane and carbon dioxide are both said to cause the greenhouse effect, which is harmful to both humans and the ecology at large3.
Durability is also another benefit notable with nuclear energy. Coal, natural gas, and oil are the major sources of energy in the present world. However, the resources are natural and are in limited supply as opposed to reactors used in the production of nuclear energy, which are plenty in supply. While the natural resources used in the production of conventional energy are expected to be exhausted in the near future, Uranium and other reactors have high reservation rates and nuclear power might thus end up being the most reliable source of power in the future.
In addition to the aforementioned benefits, nuclear energy is cheaper in terms of maintenance costs as compared to other sources of energy. Uranium, which is the fuel used in the production of electrical energy, is relatively cheaper as compared to other fuels such as oil and coal. Only a minute amount of uranium is needed to produce the desired amount of energy.
Although the initial cost of setting up a nuclear energy plant is relatively high, the cost of maintaining it is lower as compared to the maintenance costs involved in plants producing other forms of energy. A nuclear reactor has a life span of up to 50 years, which further lowers the maintenance cost3. Production cost is thus lower than the costs of producing other forms of energy.
The aspect of cost is also reflected during the transportation of raw materials. Only a minute amount of uranium is needed to produce high amounts of energy. Records show that only “20 grams of uranium are required to produce the same amount of energy produced from 100 metric tons of charcoal”4. Due to this small quantity, transportation cost is reduced greatly leading to great savings. The cost of materials and the overhead costs are estimated to be 20% of the cost of the energy produced.
Disadvantages of nuclear energy
Apart from the benefits that accrue from the use of nuclear power, the technology has its negatives. The nuclear reactors produce radioactive waste that need to be stored for long in order to avoid environmental pollution through leakages. The waste contains traces of uranium and plutonium, which are highly radioactive, and thus they can cause great damage if not properly handled. The waste thus needs to be stored in tubes to avoid contamination. The stored waste need to be inspected continuously otherwise if it leaks to the environment it would cause great harm.
Another limitation of using nuclear power is the danger it poses to the people surrounding the power producing plants in the long term. The process leading to the production of nuclear energy works in the same way as nuclear bombs, and thus the danger of nuclear meltdown is quite possible. In a bid to prevent this situation, certain catalysts have to be added during the reaction to slow down the processes, thus preventing a nuclear meltdown.
Failure by ignorant personnel to add the catalyst may lead to nuclear meltdown and explosion, thus causing death and injuries to the surrounding communities. An example of nuclear meltdown is the Chernobyl tragedy of 1986 that occurred in Ukraine causing deaths and mass injuries.
The costs involved in setting up a nuclear power plant are considerably high3. Setting up a nuclear plant requires huge investments as opposed to other forms of energy plants. This aspect means that developing countries will have to rely on loans and grants from developed countries, which increase the countries tax burden. In addition to the high costs, one needs to acquire a permit from different committees spread all over the world. The high costs and lengthy legal formalities involved tend to scare away investors and only the developed countries can enjoy this type of energy.
Nuclear technology predisposes the world to a state of insecurity since it has led to increased production of nuclear weapons. Security has thus been comprised especially with the recent upsurge in terrorist groups. Terrorists may use this technology to cause great damage in the world. Given that nuclear weapons are dangerous and their effects last for a long time, the security of the entire world is put at risk.
An example of the effects of the nuclear weapons can well be illustrated through the effects of the nuclear bombs dropped at Hiroshima and Nagasaki during the World War 2, which continue to affect the people living in those areas3. Bomb experts identified uranium and plutonium as the two elements used to make the bombs. Even after the lapse of several decades, the effects of the nuclear attacks are still noticeable as children are born with disabilities.
The other limitation of nuclear power is the sparse distribution of the reactors across the world. Uranium is a mineral found in only a number of countries in the world. This aspect means that countries without uranium deposits will have to rely on countries, which are endowed with the resource. This scenario leads to overreliance and dependency amongst countries and it may lead to unequal development amongst the countries in question. In addition, uranium, being a mineral, will soon be exhausted, and thus it cannot be said to offer a permanent solution to the problem of energy shortages.
Nuclear fusion versus nuclear fission
Nuclear fission is a process of converting nuclear energy through bombardment of the nucleus of an atom3. It is the most commonly used technique in the production of nuclear energy due to its ability to produce great amounts of energy. On the other hand, nuclear fusion is slow and less common. Nuclear fusion only contributes about 10% of the nuclear energy produced in the world3. Nuclear fusion is less vigorous as compared to nuclear fission and it produces less radioactive waste.
There has been a claim by energy experts that nuclear fusion, if well implemented, would do better in the production of energy as compared to fission and accidents would be minimized. The nuclear fusion process, though slower than nuclear fission, is highly recommended since it is safer and I produces less radioactive waste. Even though nuclear fusion has not been practical so far, it is under experiment to find out whether it can replace nuclear fission successfully.
Hybrid model of nuclear energy generation via fusion-fission process
In a bid to reduce the cost and guarantee safety to living organisms, nuclear energy experts have hinted at combining both the fission and fusion procedures in a bid to produce ‘hybrid’ nuclear power. This method was initially proposed in the early 1950s, but it has been delayed due to budget deficits and the proposed fusion process.
Experimenters dwelled heavily on nuclear fusion at the expense of the hybrid nuclear power. However, failure of nuclear fusion has driven experimenters to research on the hybrid nuclear power instead. The combination of the two would see the process of generation of nuclear power dominated by nuclear fission while nuclear fusion would be used to produce energy from the waste arising from nuclear fission processes. This way, the waste would be less radioactive, and thus be less harmful.
The fission process used in the production of nuclear energy releases waste in the form of used nuclear fuel. The waste mainly comprises unused uranium, plutonium as well as curium5.
The aforementioned three components of the waste are highly radioactive and they can cause illness or even death to living organisms. In addition to uranium, plutonium, and curium, the waste also contains some traces of fission products. The fission products are also radioactive even though they do not last for long.
Comparing radioactive waste to industrial toxic waste
Research by Oak Ridge National Laboratory into radioactive waste has revealed that nuclear power only contributes about 1% of nuclear waste5. This assertion holds, as the quantity of uranium used in the production of this type of energy is small, thus the waste is also low. The only problem with the nuclear waste from the fission process is that the waste remains hazardous for quite a long time.
The research also revealed that coal-burning plants produce the greatest percentage of radioactive waste in the form of ash. A report released in 2008 showed that coal is the main source of pollution arising from radioactive waste because coal is the fuel mostly used in the world5.
Even though coal ash is lesser radioactive than the nuclear waste, it is the most common type of fuel used in the production of energy and no protective measures are put in place to prevent the waste from contaminating the environment as in the case of fission waste where the waste is stored for long before disposal. The fact that in coal plants the waste is left to mix with the air freely makes coal the major pollutant.
In a bid to contain the problem of radioactive waste, most nuclear energy producing plants have embraced the idea of reprocessing nuclear waste. Reprocessing involves recycling the waste, thus reducing the amount of uranium and plutonium in the waste. It is estimated that reprocessing help reduce the harm of radioactive waste by 90%5. Reprocessing is currently done in the Great Britain, France, and Japan5. The United States is however reluctant on reprocessing waste in fear of nuclear proliferation and the nuclear fuel is regarded as waste as a whole.
Energy cannot be stored or destroyed, but it can be converted from one form to another through different processes. Nuclear energy involves the bombardment of an atom into two. During the bombardment of the nuclear reactors, great energy is emitted and it is converted into a usable form. Nuclear energy is the cleanest energy among the available forms of energy. It does not cause air pollution as in other forms of energy. Its use has been perpetuated by the need to create more energy to meet the ever-rising energy needs.
The advantages that accrue from the use of this type of energy outdo the advantages of fossil energy. Therefore, nuclear energy has earned the confidence of the people. Nuclear energy requires heavy investment and it is mostly used in the developed countries such as the United States and France. Despite the energy being credited for its benefits, it has its disadvantages too.
It has raised security concerns in the recent past, as the technology used in its production is similar to that used in the manufacture of atomic bombs that could cause great harm on human beings. Waste disposal remains a great problem since the waste so produced is highly radioactive and if not properly handled it can cause illness or even deaths. However, nuclear energy will continue to attract investors from all over the world since the cost of maintaining a nuclear energy plant is lesser as compared to the maintenance costs in coal plants.
Additionally, the reactors are in huge supply as opposed to coal and natural gas, which are expected to be exhausted in the near future. In conclusion, nuclear energy can be useful and economical if proper rules governing its production are set and implemented. Nuclear fusion should be adopted in place of nuclear fission since the former is less vigorous and it produces lesser radioactive waste than the latter.
- Dresselhaus MS, Thomas IL. Alternative energy technologies. Nature 2001; 414(6861): 332-337.
- Hinrichs AR, Kleinbach MH. Energy: its use and the environment. Boston: Cengage Learning; 2012.
- Lenzen, M. Life cycle energy and greenhouse gas emissions of nuclear energy: A review. Energy conversion and management 2008; 49(8): 2178-2199.
- Robinson, B. Transparency with accountability: Reporting by states party to the treaty on the non‐proliferation of nuclear weapons. Canadian Foreign Policy Journal 2004; 11(1): 81-96.
- Whitburn, G. 13 Fundamental Advantages and Disadvantages of Solar Energy. Exploring Green Technology 2011; 1(1): 218-29.