What is the future of clean energy?
By Joao T. Corbett
What is Nuclear Energy?
Before entering the discussion on the merits of nuclear energy, it is imperative to have a basic understanding of the science, and history behind it. After the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, people believed that the power used in the bomb could be diverted into the production of clean, and cheap energy. The only problem was that the research for power plants had not been yet developed, and the money needed for their production was in short stock. This problem continued into the latter half of the 20th century until the Yom Kippur War in the middle east drove up the price of oil. This ushered in a decade of large investments in nuclear energy. The reactor chosen for this task was the relatively basic light water reactor.
This reactor works by using an artificial nuclear fission reaction to heat up water which then spins a turbine, thus creating energy. The main fuel for this reactor is the very unstable Uranium 235. Within the reactor core, neutrons are catapulted at Uranium 235 atoms until they split into smaller, more stable elements releasing large amounts of energy in the process.
Although this age saw a considerable increase in Nuclear energy and a heightened amount of investment, it was cut short by two major accidents that occurred within these plants. The first of these was the three-mile Island accident in Pennsylvania, the USA, and the Chernobyl disaster in Soviet-occupied Ukraine. The catastrophes resulted in a mass public disillusionment with nuclear energy resulting in a drastic decrease in funding, and less funding for the research. Today, only ten percent of the world’s energy is produced by about 439 nuclear plants in thirty-one countries. This number is mostly comprised of the aforementioned light water reactor
Critics of Nuclear energy either believe that nuclear energy is far too dangerous for human exploitation and that its cons vastly outweigh its benefits. The argument against nuclear energy can be relegated to three main reasons. The first of these is the potential for the development of nuclear weapons, in the name of clean energy. The fact is that it is extremely difficult to develop nuclear power plants, without developing nuclear bombs. It is also nearly impossible to distinguish nuclear energy projects from nuclear bomb projects. This worry has already been proven true when countries like Pakistan, India, South Africa, Israel, and North Korea were able to develop weapons in the name of energy. These weapons, if fallen into the wrong hands, could potentially cause the end of human life on earth. The second of these arguments is in regard to the deadly waste produced by nuclear power plants. This waste is not only radioactive but also contains extremely dangerous elements such as plutonium. A milligram can kill a fully grown man, and a few kilograms can make an atom bomb. It is no surprise that this waste is very difficult to dispose of, and of the 31 countries producing waste, only Finland has a permanent, effective institution that takes care of the waste. The final argument is that nuclear reactors are far too dangerous, and have already taken thousands of lives, and rendered large areas uninhabitable for decades.
Supporters of nuclear energy believe that the benefits of nuclear energy far outweigh its drawbacks. The argument in nuclear energy can also be condensed into three main reasons. The first of these reasons is based upon a 2013 study conducted by NASA which concluded that nuclear energy saved about 1.8 million lives between 1976, and 2009. All this might seem rather strange, due to nuclear energy’s many accidents, it is important to account for the type of waste produced by nuclear power. Nuclear waste, though extremely dangerous, is a controllable by-product, which can be stored. This is not the same case for the bi-products of other energy sources which are simply pumped into the atmosphere. This reduction in atmospheric pollution has resulted in a considerable decrease in lung cancer, and other conditions derived from said pollution. The second reason further expands upon the previous and is that in relation to CO2 emissions, nuclear energy is the cleanest source of energy. It produces very little emission which not only saves lives but also reduces the effects of climate change and its consequences. Nuclear energy is also the only reliable clean source of energy that can constantly produce energy without being reliant upon controllable factors. The third reason is simply that nuclear energy is an ever-expanding field of research, and most of the reactors of today use outdated technologies employed in the 1970s. An example of this includes the thorium reactor which uses thorium instead of Uranium 235 for its fuel. It is very difficult to make nuclear weapons from thorium, and it produces 200 times the energy and less than half of its waste. Another advancement is the recyclability of nuclear waste, which could potentially eliminate the waste problem altogether.
Char, N L, and B J Csik. “Nuclear Power Development: History and Outlook.” IAEA, IAEA,1987,www.iaea.org/sites/default/files/publications/magazines/bulletin/bull29-3/29304781925.pdf.
Kharecha, Pushker, and James Hansen. “Coal and Gas Are Far More Harmful than Nuclear Power – Climate Change: Vital Signs of the Planet.” NASA, NASA, 5 Nov. 2015, climate.nasa.gov/news/903/coal-and-gas-are-far-more-harmful-than-nuclear-power/.
Zarubin, Bobby. Introduction To Light Water Reactors, 7 Mar. 2016, large.stanford.edu/courses/2015/ph241/zarubin1/.
*Special mention to Kurzgesagt nuclear energy series, below are links to each of the videos in series.