The advantages and disadvantages of nuclear energy have made this energy source one of the most controversial on the market today. Advocates for and against nuclear energy are equally passionate about their causes. Understanding the pros and cons of this energy source can help you make a more informed decision about your own energy use.
Nuclear Power Source
Nuclear energy is used to produce electricity. Heat generated from the splitting of uranium atoms in a process known as fission is used to produce steam. This steam in turn powers turbines, which are used to produce the electricity that supplies the surrounding community.
Nuclear power stations are set up in a multiple-step process that has been designed to help contain the energy and many of its negative byproducts. This process alone is the base of several advantages and disadvantages for this energy source.
Advantages of Nuclear Energy
Despite potential drawbacks and the controversy that surrounds it, nuclear energy does have a few advantages over some other methods of energy production.
Less uranium is needed to produce the same amount of energy as coal or oil, which lowers the cost of producing the same amount of energy. Uranium is also less expensive to procure and transport, which further lowers the cost.
When a nuclear power plant is functioning properly, it can run uninterrupted for up to 540 days. This results in fewer brownouts or other power interruptions. The running of the plant is also not contingent of weather or foreign suppliers, which makes it more stable than other forms of energy.
No Greenhouse Gases
While nuclear energy does have some emissions, the plant itself does not give off greenhouse gasses. Studies have shown that what life-cycle emissions that the plants do give off are on par with renewable energy sources such as wind power. This lack of greenhouse gases can be very attractive to some consumers.
Disadvantages of Nuclear Energy
One of the reasons that nuclear energy falls under fire so frequently is due to the many disadvantages it brings.
Uranium is used in the process of fission because it's a naturally unstable element. This means that special precautions must be taken during the mining, transporting and storing of the uranium, as well as the storing of any waste product to prevent it from giving off harmful levels of radiation.
Nuclear fission chambers are cooled by water, in both the boiling water reactors (BWRs) and pressurized water reactors (PWRs). In PWRs, cold water enters through primary pipes and the secondary pipes remove the heated water away, so the coolant is not in contact with the reactor. In BWRs, water runs through the reactor core, so if there is any leakage of fuel, the water can get contaminated and is transported to the rest of system.
Used nuclear rods are immersed in water in the spent fuel pool, to cool them before they can be transported for disposal. Radio-active water can leak out of doors in the pool when the seals that keep the doors airtight malfunction.
Other pollutants released by nuclear plants are heavy metals and toxic pollutants that harm plant and animal life in aquatic bodies. Water is released into the atmosphere after being cooled but is still warm and damages the ecosystem of the sinks it flows into.
When the uranium has finished splitting, the resulting radioactive byproducts need to be removed. While recycling efforts of this waste product have been undertaken in recent years, the storage of the by-product could lead to contamination through leaks or containment failures.
Nuclear reactors are built with several safety systems designed to contain the radiation given off in the fission process. When these safety systems are properly installed and maintained, they function adequately. When they are not maintained, have structural flaws or were improperly installed, a nuclear reactor could release harmful amounts of radiation into the environment during the process of regular use. If a containment field were to rupture suddenly, the resulting leak of radiation could be catastrophic.
There have been several nuclear reactors that have failed and been shutdown that are still in existence. These abandoned reactors are taking up valuable land space, could be contaminating the areas surrounding them, yet are often too unstable to be removed.
With so many advantages and disadvantages of nuclear energy, it's no wonder that nuclear power remains one of the most controversial sources of energy in existence. Educate yourself on this topic to make an informed decision on your views of its use.
In this section we analyze the advantages and disadvantages of nuclear power. Nevertheless, most organizations related to nuclear energy are already positioned for or against the use of nuclear power. On this site we try to make an objective analysis about this question, giving all the relevant information and offering a space for different conclusions.
Advantages of nuclear power
The generation of electricity through nuclear energy reduces the amount of energy generated from fossil fuels (coal and oil). Less use of fossil fuels means lowering greenhouse gas emissions (CO2 and others).
Currently, fossil fuels are consumed faster than they are produced, so in the next future these resources may be reduced or the price may increase becoming inaccessible for most of the population.
Another advantage is the required amount of fuel: less fuel offers more energy. It represents a significant save on raw materials but also in transport, handling and extraction of nuclear fuel. The cost of nuclear fuel (overall uranium) is 20% of the cost of energy generated.
The production of electric energy is continuous. A nuclear power plant is generating electricity for almost 90% of annual time. It reduces the price volatility of other fuels such as petrol.
This continuity benefits the electrical planning. Nuclear power does not depends on natural aspects. It's a solutions for the main disadvantage of renewable energy, like solar energy or eolic energy, because the hours of sun or wind does not always coincide with the hours with more energy demand.
It's an alternative to fossil fuels, so the consumption of fuels such as coal or oil is reduced. This reduction of coal and oil consumption benefits the situation of global warming and global climate change. By reducing the consumption of fossil fuels we also improve the quality of the air affecting the disease and quality of life.
Disadvantages of nuclear power
We've previously discussed the advantage of using nuclear energy to reduce fossil fuel consumption. Organizations often use this argument in favor of nuclear energy but it's a partial truth. Much of the consumption of fossil fuels is due to road transport, used in heat engines (cars, trucks, etc.). Savings in fossil fuel for power generation is fairly low.
Despite the high level of sophistication of the safety systems of nuclear power plants the human aspect has always an impact. Facing an unexpected event or managing a nuclear accident we don't have any guarantee that decisions we took are always the best. Two good examples are Chernobyl and Fukushima.
The Chernobyl nuclear accident is, by far, the worst nuclear accident in the history. Different wrong decisions during the management of the nuclear plant caused a big nuclear explosion.
Referring to the Fukushima nuclear accident, the operations done by the staff were highly questionable. Fukushima nuclear accident is the second worst accident in the history.
One of the main disadvantages is the difficulty in the management of nuclear waste. It takes many years to eliminate its radioactivity and risks.
The constructed nuclear reactors have an expiration date. Then, they've to be dismantled, so that main countries producing nuclear energy could maintain a regular number of operating reactors. They've to built about 80 new nuclear reactors during the next ten years.
Nuclear plants have a limited life. The investment for the construction of a nuclear plant is very high and must be recovered as soon as possible, so it raises the cost of electricity generated. In other words, the energy generated is cheap compared to the cost of fuel, but the recovery of its construction is much more expensive.
Nuclear power plants are objectives of terrorist organizations.
Nuclear power plants generate external dependence. Not many countries have uranium mines and not all the countries have nuclear technology, so they have to hire both things overseas.
Current nuclear reactors work by fission nuclear reactions. These chain reactions is generated in case control systems fail, generating continous reactions causing a radioactive explosion that would be virtually impossible to contain.
Probably the most alarming disadvantage is the use of the nuclear power in the military industry. The first use of nuclear power was the creation of two nuclear bombs dropped on Japan during World War II. This was the first and the last time that nuclear power was used in a military attack. Later, several countries signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, but the risk that nuclear weapons could be used in the future will always exist.
Advantages of nuclear fusion versus nuclear fission
Currently the generation of electricity in nuclear reactors is done by nuclear fission reactions. For the moment, nuclear fusion is not valid to generate electric power. Once developed, if nuclear fusion is really practicable, it will provide great advantages over nuclear fission:
- Virtually inexhaustible sources of fuel.
- No accidents in the reactor due to the chain reactions that occur in fissions.
- The waste generated will be much less radioactive.
Last review: October 15, 2014
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