By: Sofia Rodriguez
As the threat of climate change becomes more encroaching, scientists are struggling to find solutions. The answer seems to lie beyond the skin — in the heart…. of an atom. Using nuclear energy as a substitute can help decrease the impact of climate change by drastically reducing the amount of waste and sparking innovation for more advanced nuclear generators.
Climate change has struck our world as an impending epidemic. If global warming keeps accelerating at the pace it currently is, there is a chance that our world will be completely irreparable by 2050. Global sea levels will rise 1-4 ft by 2100. Hurricanes will become much more powerful. The Arctic has the possibility of becoming iceless. Rain patterns will become irregular. Droughts and heatwaves are lengthening and are projected to become even longer in the near future. Global temperatures are set to rise 2.7 °F within the next couple of years, destroying ecosystems. This is largely thanks to the pollution in our atmosphere due to the burning of fossil fuels as energy. Excess CO2 and other greenhouse gases trap heat and raise the temperature of the Earth’s surface. Although there are some green alternatives, none of them break the large percentage of the global energy supply that is provided by fossil fuels. The desire for energy is set to increase drastically over the next couple of years. Projections for China alone will add the equivalent of a new 600 MW coal plant every 10 days for the next 10 years. This damaging blow to our atmosphere can be repaired by nuclear energy. #EcoWOAH
How Nuclear Energy Works:
Nuclear energy is the energy held in the nucleus of an atom, keeping together protons and neutrons. It is one of the strongest forces known to man. It can be collected and converted to electricity in two ways: nuclear fission and nuclear fusion.
Nuclear fission is the process of shooting neutrons at a barely-stable nucleus of a heavy atom, usually Uranium-235. The reason Uranium-235 is because it is barely stable so it takes very little action to become radioactive. The action of adding neutrons to the Uranium-235 usually causes the atom to break apart into two smaller atoms because is becomes radioactive. Excess neutrons and energy in the form of radiation is released. Radiation in the form of heat surrounds the water and the extra neutrons shoot themselves at other uranium atoms because they are moving so fast, creating a self-sustaining reaction. This reaction, when used to harvest energy, is a closely-controlled chain-reaction. However, because this is a self-sustaining reaction, it can get out of control extremely quickly and can cause large explosions, such as the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in 2011 and the Chernobyl disaster in 1986. (For more information, go to www.hbo.com and watch the miniseries “Chernobyl”.) However, it does create a lot more nuclear waste than nuclear fusion.
Nuclear fusion is the process of combining nuclei to create larger, denser elements. This reaction is most notably present during the Big Bang, where hydrogen atoms come under high pressure and high velocity, combined at speeds close to the speed of light to create helium, lithium, boron, and carbon. It creates far less nuclear waste than nuclear fission because of the lack of excess neutrons. It creates far more energy per unit of matter, expressed in Einstein’s equation: E=mc2. #ohRLTVY? However, the synthetic production of fusion reactions has not been achieved yet on earth.
The Technology Behind It:
Current technologies only support fission reactions. The most common reactor to harvest nuclear energy is a light-water reactor, making up 90% of all nuclear generators. There are two types: pressurized water reactors and boiling water reactors. Boiling water reactors heat water to produce steam inside a reactor vessel by inserting water and heating it through fission, reusing any unused water. Pressurized water reactors pump water into the reactor under high pressure to inhibit boiling. The water is heated by nuclear fission in the core and pumped into surrounding heat exchanging tubes. The tubes then heat a separate water source to create steam to turn an electrical generator to produce electricity.
Boiling Water Reactor vs Pressurized Water Reactor (Source: Office of Nuclear Energy)
The Solution and its Impacts:
Nuclear energy as-is can already be a more green alternative to energy collected from fossil fuels. The amount of waste from nuclear fission per unit of energy is minuscule compared to the carbon emissions of fossil fuels #enerGEEWIZZ. By decreasing the amount of carbon dioxide, methane, and other greenhouse gases we pump into the atmosphere, we can lower the toll climate change takes on our Earth. Increasing the amount of nuclear energy used per capita is a good short-term solution for energy demand and decreasing global warming until scientists figure out a more suitable long-term solution. Since 1976, about 64 gigatons of greenhouse gases have not been pumped into the atmosphere thanks to nuclear energy, which could increase to 80-120 gigatons by the mid-21st century. It has already been proven to work in countries such as France and Sweden, reducing their carbon emissions by 1/10, roughly the percentage of removing all cars from the road.
Nuclear energy also saves lives, having the lowest death per unit generated ratio. It doesn’t take a lot of manpower and extremely unsafe conditions to harvest nuclear energy. It decreases the probability of lung cancer (which can be carried down for generations,) and accidents from coal mining. Between 1973 and 2009, nuclear energy has helped save 1.8 million lives, which will only increase in the future.
Lastly, nuclear energy helps spark technological innovation and interest in greener energy alternatives #innovationforthefuture. The technology to produce nuclear energy ended in the 1970s, proving it to be outdated. If nuclear energy using fission reactions is a short term solution, then scientists agree that technological innovation in figuring out to harvest energy from nuclear fusion is a long-term solution because it has far less nuclear waste and little to no carbon footprint. #savetheearth
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All views expressed by the authors are their own.