The humble atom. While it may seem like a modern-day discovery, its origins go back thousands of years to around 450 B.C.E. The Greek philosopher Democritus proposed that if you keep cutting larger pieces of matter bit by bit, you would end up with a singular piece of matter that could not be divided anymore. He called this particle atomos, which translates to uncuttable or indivisible.
Little did Democritus know that atoms can indeed be cut and even fused with one another to produce other elements. Today, this slicing of atoms, formally referred to as nuclear fission, is the foundation of nuclear energy as a power source.
What is Nuclear Fission?
The process of nuclear fission produces an immense amount of energy, and we have learned how to convert it into electricity to power our homes and businesses. In fact, nuclear fission is so powerful that just 10 grams of uranium (the nuclear fuel) is the energy equivalent of one ton of coal, 149 gallons of oil, or 17,000 cubic feet of natural gas.1 Plus, it emits no greenhouse gas emissions when creating electricity, unlike natural gas and coal which are carbon-based fossil fuels.
However, this highly efficient, carbon-free power doesn’t come without any drawbacks. When splitting an atom, massive amounts of energy are released. Kinetic energy (heat) is one of them, which is used to power the steam turbines that generate electricity. The other is gamma radiation, a deadly form of radiation more powerful than x-rays, as they can stay radioactive for thousands of years.
Thus, nuclear energy is considered to be hugely helpful but also very controversial. As scientists and world leaders try to figure out the best methods to produce green electricity in the years to come, it’s important to understand the benefits and drawbacks of nuclear energy, as well as the other sources of energy, to become better informed about where the future of energy is headed.
7 Pros and Cons of Nuclear Energy
Like all energy sources, there are benefits and challenges to each. Below, we’ve composed seven of nuclear energy’s pros and cons — four benefits to nuclear and three of its weak points.
|Carbon-free energy source
|Not a renewable energy source
|One of the most reliable forms of energy
|Produces radioactive waste
|Highly efficient with little waste
|Has a negative public perception
|Creates many jobs
4 Benefits of Nuclear Energy
Nuclear energy doesn’t produce any direct carbon emissions
Perhaps the best part about nuclear energy is that it gives off zero carbon emissions when generating electricity. When a uranium atom is split apart, it releases a ton of kinetic energy in the form of heat. In turn, that heat boils water and creates steam, which spins the turbines responsible for generating electricity.
However, nuclear energy does release air pollutants indirectly. Constructing nuclear power plants requires lots of concrete and metal, and the process of mining and refining uranium takes lots of energy. So, if any fossil fuels were used to construct the plant, mine the uranium, and refine it, then nuclear energy does have a carbon footprint.2
Nuclear energy is a reliable energy source
Since 1990, commercial nuclear power plants have generated a fifth of the U.S.’s electricity each year. They’re made to operate 24/7, and in 2019, nuclear power plants operated at full capacity 93% of the time. According to the Department of Energy, this makes nuclear energy the most reliable energy source in America.3
Nuclear energy is highly efficient
As we mentioned before, a 10-gram pellet of uranium, the element used in nuclear reactions, can generate as much electricity as one ton of coal 149 gallons of gas or 17,000 cubic feet of natural gas. So, relative to other resources, we don’t use much of it. In fact, all of the nuclear fuel that the U.S. produced over the last 60 years only covers 10 yards of a football field.3
Nuclear energy creates jobs
The nuclear industry employs nearly 100,000 workers in the U.S. Approximately a quarter of those are veterans, and just one of the 96 commercial reactors active in the U.S. as of April 2020 can create $40 million in labor income every year.3
3 Disadvantages of Nuclear Power
Nuclear energy is not a renewable energy source
Renewable energy comes from naturally occurring sources that are virtually inexhaustible, including the sun, wind, water, and plants. Any energy source deemed “renewable” cannot ever be used up or depleted, and it must be renewed frequently (within the average human lifespan) and naturally.4
Uranium, the most often-used element in nuclear fuel, can be found all over the Earth. However, nuclear power plants can only use a certain type of uranium called U-235. Thus, we’ll eventually run out of uranium, so it’s not a renewable resource like wind and solar.
Nuclear energy produces radioactive waste
There is a big debate about whether nuclear energy can be considered clean even though its process of generating electricity doesn’t produce greenhouse gas emissions. As we mention in our article on clean energy sources, though this is a major pro, we still can’t think of nuclear energy as clean because of radioactive waste.
Ranging from the protective clothing workers wear with radioactive dust particles on them to the more high-level spent nuclear fuel, radioactive waste can remain radioactive for thousands of years. And while the risk of contamination is small, it requires lots of planning and materials to ensure these materials never see the light of day.
Nuclear energy has a negative public perception
When people hear the word “nuclear,” it’s hard not to think of the tragic accidents that occurred in the past, such as Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. And the invention of nuclear weapons like the atomic bomb certainly doesn’t help either. According to a Gallup poll, approximately half of the U.S. public is either strongly opposed to or somewhat opposed to the use of nuclear power.
As you can see, there’s a lot to consider about the long-term viability of nuclear power — and we haven’t even discussed the full picture. While nuclear energy does have its challenges, it has also put a major dent in the amount of greenhouse gas emissions that would have otherwise been created by burning more fossil fuels. While we aren’t able to state categorically whether nuclear energy is good or bad, we do know that the future of the energy industry will be very interesting.