By Vanessa Salazar
What is Nuclear Energy?
Nuclear energy takes the smallest parts of our world and generates an unforeseen amount of power but how does it work? Nuclear energy is energy produced through the use of atoms. This can occur from fission, the splitting of the nuclei (the core of atoms composed of protons and neutrons), or fusion, the fusing of nuclei. These days, most commercial energy is obtained from fission based technologies (Galindo, 2021). Nuclear energy is often believed to be negative and worse than fossil fuel energy, but in recent years new light has been shed on nuclear energy and its potential role as a sustainable energy source. This is especially relevant as current fossil fuel energy production methods account for 74% of total US greenhouse gas emissions, making the path to finding cleaner energy ever more prevalent.
Why Nuclear Energy?
Currently, a perfect sustainable energy source simply does not exist. While nuclear energy does have its risks and challenges, it remains the only energy source with a secure supply, produces no emissions, and can be commercially applied on a large scale. This is because nuclear energy has such a high capcity factor, meaning its producing at maximum power 90% of the time, making them 2.5 to 3.5 times more reliable than wind and solar energy (Office of Nuclear Energy, 2021). Nuclear energy also requires less maintenance and refueling compared to renewable plants that require large scale storage as back up power. This has made it appealing for countries like the US that remain hesitant about reducing fossil fuels due to their high dependency and fear renewable plants will fail to meet the energy productions needs of its people. Nuclear reactors would also require less land compared to other energy systems making them more efficient. This is due to nuclear energy being incredibly dense, further limiting the land footprint necessary and requiring far fewer materials compared to fossil fuels (Office of Nuclear Energy, 2021).
What are the Problems with Nuclear Energy?
A big concern regarding nuclear energy is radioactive waste, a byproduct of energy production. This poses a risk to human health and safety. While reactors generally do a good job of containing radiation the possibility for leakage still remains. One instance was the Fukushima nuclear accident of 2011. Following an earthquake, a tsunami disabled the power in 3 nuclear energy reactors resulting in high radioactive releases (World Nuclear Association, 2021). The radiation leaked into the surrounding water and made it no longer safe for residents . While there are currently nuclear reactors in the work that would further limit radiation produced they are not expected to be available for years. Another limitation is that while nuclear energy production itself is sustainable the extraction of uranium (the main material used in nuclear energy production) is not. Although Uranium is a naturally occurring element in many rocks it is not a renewable source. Not only does the extraction process release greenhouse gasses it can produce its own radioactive waves and scar ground sites.
The health concerns associated with nuclear energy production and unsustainable mining of uranium have led many countries like Germany to opt for more small-scale solar, wind, and hydro production for energy. Increased technological innovations and government subsidization for cleaner energy have allowed for increased storage and production, making such a practice possible. While no single energy source can completely take fossil fuel or nuclear energy’s place, a combination of many varying types would be an option and could increase fuel diversification and energy security. ("Why Renewable Energy", 2022). Even so, many chose to adopt nuclear energy as a shift to cleaner energy. Thus, the question on whether nuclear energy is sustainable or sustainable enough to warrant mass implementation remains up to debate. Each country has decided what works for them and so we are left to observe what the future of nuclear energy will look like in the upcoming years.
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