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Advantages and Challenges of Nuclear Energy

13 June 2022

Nuclear crises such as the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, to the melting of a nuclear reactor at Chernobyl have resulted in the fear of the unknown if a full-scale nuclear migration is implemented.

Fortunately, the bad reputation associated with nuclear energy is from accidents, which are, by and large, statistical outliers.

When talking about clean energy, nuclear energy is mostly left out of the conversation despite being the second-largest source of low-carbon electricity behind hydropower. For many people, the immediate go-to answers are mostly solar panels and wind turbines.

This is why in this article, we will demystify nuclear energy and go in-depth about what it is, its advantages and why the public perception about the source of energy needs to change.

What is Nuclear Energy?

To understand how nuclear energy is produced, we need to first familiarize ourselves with a few concepts.

  • Nucleus: This is the innermost core of an atom. It contains protons, neutrons and electrons.
  • Protons: A proton is a positively charged subatomic particle found inside an atom.
  • Neutron: A neutron is a subatomic particle with no electric charge and approximately the same size and mass as a proton.
  • Electron: An electron is a negatively charged subatomic particle found inside an atom's nuclei.

To produce nuclear energy, the nuclei of an atom needs to be split in a process called nuclear fission, or fused together, in a process called nuclear fusion.

Today, most nuclear energy produced around the world is through the nuclear fission method. However, the production of energy through nuclear fusion is still in the development stages and is currently at the research and development phase.

What is Nuclear Fission?

Nuclear fission is a reaction where the nucleus of an atom splits into two or more smaller nuclei, releasing energy in the process.

A good example of nuclear fission is the splitting of uranium atoms, which most nuclear power plants use. During nuclear fission, a neutron collides with a uranium-235 atom and splits it into two smaller nuclei, such as a barium nucleus and a krypton nucleus. The fission also produces two or three neutrons. These extra neutrons collide with the remaining uranium-235 atoms, which results in another nucleus split of the uranium atoms. This process repeats itself multiple times, with each time resulting in the splitting of the nucleus into two smaller nuclei and extra electrons which collide with the remaining uranium atoms repeatedly. This generates a chain reaction that takes a fraction of a second to complete, creating a constant energy supply.

Using Nuclear Fission in a Nuclear Power Plant

Nuclear power plants make use of nuclear reactors to contain and control chain reactions during a physical process called fission. The heat produced during this process is then used to heat water, which in turn spins turbines, creating electricity.

Today, there are over 440 commercial nuclear reactors worldwide. This includes 94 nuclear reactors in the United States that provide clean energy to millions of citizens.

How Does a Nuclear Reactor Create Heat?

Nuclear reactors are used to control nuclear fission, which is a process that involves atoms splitting and releasing energy.

To produce electricity, reactors are stacked with small ceramic pellets of uranium in metal tubes called fuel rods. These fuel rods are bundled together, mostly in bundles of more than 200 rods, where they form a fuel assembly. Hundreds of these fuel assemblies form what is known as the reactor core.

The fuel rods are then immersed in water to act as both coolants and moderators. During the nuclear fission process, control rods can also be inserted into the reactor to reduce the reaction rate or withdrawn to increase the reaction.

The heat produced during this process is used to spin turbines, which produces carbon-free electricity.

Types of Nuclear Reactors

There are many types of nuclear reactors available that are used to produce electricity. However, in the United States, all commercial nuclear reactors are light-water reactors, and this is what we are going to look at in this section.

There are two types of light-water reactors:

  1. Pressurized water reactors: These types of reactors make up over 65 percent of all nuclear reactors in the United States. They operate by heating water in the core by using nuclear fission. The water is then pumped into tubes inside a heat exchanger. These tubes contain separate water sources that create steam which turns turbines that generate electricity.

  1. Boiling water reactors: They make up almost one-third of US nuclear reactors. They function by producing steam directly inside the reactor vessel. Then water is pumped through the reactor core and heated through nuclear fission. The steam is then fed directly to the turbines, producing electricity.

Advantages of Nuclear Energy

  1. Clean Energy Source

Nuclear energy is the largest source of clean power in the United States, generating more than 800 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity per annum. This accounts for more than 50 percent of the carbon-free electricity produced in the US.

By meeting the electric energy needs of US consumers with nuclear energy, 470 million metric tons of carbon emissions are avoided each year.

  1. Most reliable energy source

One of the biggest challenges of clean energy is its failure to run 24/7 uninterrupted. This includes solar energy, which is only available for half a day, and wind energy which changes intensity with seasons.

However, you can expect constant energy 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, with nuclear energy. They are also refueled after 1.5 to 2 years, based on 2019 data that showed that nuclear reactors operated 92 percent of the time, which means they are the most reliable source of energy.

  1. Job Creation

Nuclear energy is a $60 billion industry in the United States and employs thousands of workers across the United States. The salaries are also higher than most industries, making it one of the best industries to work in.

  1. Land Footprint is small

Compared to other alternatives such as Solar energy and wind turbines, nuclear plants take up less space while producing more power than other sources of energy. This makes nuclear energy more efficient to manage, especially in areas where land is an issue.

  1. Minimal waste

Nuclear energy is extremely dense. This means that the amount of nuclear fuel used is not as big as other energy sources. Therefore, the amount of waste is also not as huge as other sources.

Also, nuclear waste is easily manageable, and refueling takes about 1.5 to 2 years.

Challenges Facing Nuclear energy

Some of the challenges nuclear energy has faced include:

  1. High Operating Costs

Strict regulations and high maintenance costs have slowed down the development of nuclear reactors. This has hindered the growth of nuclear energy as a source of power.

  1. High costs of constructing new nuclear power plants

The cost of constructing nuclear power plants is usually higher than other energy sources. This has resulted in governments and companies opting for cheaper solutions rather than building nuclear reactors and power plants.

  1. Negative public perception

For long, nuclear has been associated with war. This perception is still persistent to date, and many people are opposed to setting up new nuclear power plants, even though they don’t pose risks.

  1. Waste disposal is complicated

Disposing nuclear waste is expensive and can pose health risks if it is not properly disposed of. This also causes investors and the public to perceive the energy source negatively. It has also kept new nuclear projects from getting started due to complications with explaining how they will dispose of their used radioactive materials.