What is nuclear energy?
Nuclear energy is power that is contained in the nucleus of an atom. Energy is generated when water is boiled to make steam which propels a turbine which in turn generates electricity. In nuclear power plants, uranium fuel is used in a reaction called nuclear fission which is the splitting of atoms, to generate electricity. Uranium fuel is in the form of pellets, a single uranium pellet contains the same amount of energy as a tonne of coal, around 677 litres of oil, or 17,000 cubic feet of natural gas. With uranium being one of the planet’s most abundant metals, it can provide fuel for years to come.
The nuclear energy industry went through a period of growth, remained at a constant during the 1990s has been somewhat in decline since then. In the UK several nuclear plants reached the end of their lives and more existing reactors are due to be shut down before 2030. With a nuclear plant taking as long as 10 years to build and costing as much as £26 billion, their production could take too long to have an impact on the UKs emissions targets or reduction of energy prices.
In mid-2021 there were 415 civilian nuclear reactors worldwide, which altogether provide around 10% of the world’s electricity.
Is nuclear energy safe?
When your only experience and knowledge of nuclear energy is Chernobyl, it is understandable why you believe nuclear energy is unsafe. On the contrary, the nuclear industry prides itself on maintaining extremely high standards of safety. The International Atomic Energy Agency, which are a part of the United Nations, says that nuclear power plants are among the “safest and most secure facilities in the world”.
You are subject to 3 times more radiation living near a coal plant than if you live near a nuclear plant. Even then, the exposure from living near a coal plant is inconsequential. Earth is a radioactive planet, the amount of extra radiation you will get from working at, or being in proximity to, a nuclear power plant is undetectably low.
Concerns over nuclear waste, and accidents, are valid. Waste fuel from nuclear power plants remains highly radioactive and dangerous for a long time. Although it is only a small amount of waste fuel in comparison to coal plants, it needs to be treated extremely carefully. There has been a change since 2007 with more communities within the UK accepting the storage of nuclear waste in exchange for some benefits. Similar approaches have been taken with wind energy in that the community tolerates the wind turbines in exchange for cheaper energy.
Accidents happen, with the most famous ones being Chernobyl and Fukushima. Although tragic, both happened in relatively old reactors and safety systems nowadays are far better. The most gruesome effects of radiation exposure only happen at extremely high levels, the risk of cancer is a much more prevalent concern. This was only for people who had exposure levels of around 100 times more than what most of us are exposed to in a year. A study found that even the clean-up engineers at Chernobyl ended up being at less risk of cancer than people who lived with a smoker. The Chernobyl accident was devastating, people were killed through acute radiation exposure and caused thousands of cases of cancer however the dramatisation in the tv series caused an overestimation of the severity and scale of the disaster.
Nuclear energy is overall, much safer than fossil fuels.
- Power plants don’t produce any combustion by products or greenhouse gases.
- They are efficient and reliable, producing electricity continuously without interruption.
- They can be used to power electric vehicles.
- The ratio of uranium used to energy produced is greater than with other energy resources.
- Nuclear energy provides more than just electricity. Its wide range of uses includes supplying radioisotopes for cancer treatment, powering space exploration and much more.
- Can take up to a decade to build.
- Are extremely expensive to construct.
- Nuclear waste must be safely removed and stored for hundreds of years. It is currently stored in temporary facilities which are not suitable for long term storage of radioactive waste.
- Eutrophication caused by radioactive waste leads to death of aquatic life.
- It is not a renewable energy as uranium is a finite resource. Once it has been completely extracted there will be no more nuclear energy production.
- Nuclear energy poses a risk if used to create weapons. Nuclear plants can be targets for terrorist organisations and it could be lethal for humanity and our planet.
A controversial topic, nuclear energy is widely asked about. If power plants are managed effectively and waste disposed of safely then nuclear power has the capability of providing reliable and clean energy to the global population.