Ah nuclear power… The controversial energy giant that gave birth to the glorious stereotypes of mutated super-monsters, extra limbs, and deformed, glowing reptiles. For decades atomic energy has been shrouded in a deep mist of misconceptions held together by a hodge-podge of Soviet-era horror films.
This nearly exclusively negative publicity has certainly taken a toll on the nuclear industry, prompting many anti-nuclear groups to voice their concerns to company executives and the government.
But are they effectively “protecting their innocent children from cancer-causing pollutants” by protesting the advancement of nuclear energy? I would argue no, and here are the reasons why:
How Nuclear Power Helps Us
- 1 in 5 households and businesses in the U.S. receive their electricity from nuclear energy.
- Nuclear power facilities can produce energy at a 91% efficiency rate 24/7, with virtually zero carbon emissions.
- 13% of the world’s electricity comes from nuclear power plants that emit little to no greenhouse gases.
Nuclear power plants run on uranium; an element so energy-rich that a single fuel pellet the size of a fingertip contains as much energy as 17,000 cubic feet of natural gas, 1,780 pounds of coal or 149 gallons of oil.
- The U.S. saves $12 billion dollars each year for energy costs because of nuclear power.
- Nuclear power plants actually emit fewer radioactive materials into the environment than a traditional coal-burning plant.
- It is estimated that nuclear facilities have saved 1.84 million lives since their inception by preventing the release of countless amounts of harmful pollutants/emissions.
- Modern nuclear plants can produce electricity for just four cents per kilowatt hour (including capital construction costs!), a good competitor compared to solar energy’s 16 cents per kilowatt hour and coal’s 9 cents/kWh.
-statistics courtesy of the EPA, Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), and World Nuclear Association.
“1 in 5 households and businesses in the U.S. receive their electricity from Nuclear Energy.” -EPA
Ok, so maybe you’re now a little more comfortable with the thought of nuclear power turning your lights on at night. But what exactly is it? And how does it work?
Nuclear Fission Baby!
In your standard nuclear power plant, nuclear fission is used to literally tear atoms a part. In a very controlled reactor chamber, this technology is used to split Uranium atoms into two smaller atoms.
When this occurs, the new smaller atoms don’t require as much energy and thus release the excess energy off as massive amounts of heat. In turn, this heat is used to raise water to a boiling point, generate steam, and drive a turbine, thus providing round-the-clock energy while releasing only one by-product out of those giant, beautiful stacks: harmless water vapor.
One “load” (about one metric ton) of uranium fuel can produce consistent electricity for about 18 months. At the end of this period, about one-third of the spent fuel is removed from the reactor and replaced with fresh uranium.
This spent fuel is perhaps the most controversial element of nuclear power. This waste is highly radioactive and potentially dangerous if not carefully handled and monitored. The majority of spent fuel is stored on-site at reactors in strictly controlled “cooling pools” or large sealed dry-casks. But as these storage facilities fill up, nuclear plants have been forced to look for new storage alternatives that have been varied and extreme, from deep cavern burial to outer space disposal.
If you want to see the nuclear fuel process a little more in depth, check out this short interactive app produced by the Nuclear Energy Institute: Nuclear Waste
The Frightening Alternatives
So if we didn’t use nuclear power, where would we receive our clean energy? While it’s nice to imagine rolling green hills of wind turbines and solar panels, the truth is that most of our energy would (and currently does) come from coal.
“Coal generates 44% of our electricity, and is the single biggest air polluter in the U.S.”
A typical coal plant burns 1.4 million tons of coal each year. As of 2012, there are 572 operational coal plants in the U.S. That equates to 800.8 million tons of coal burned in America alone every year. That’s almost 20 pounds of coal per person, every day. Burning that coal causes smog, soot, acid rain, global warming, and toxic air emissions.
A 2010 study by the Clean Air Task Force estimated that air pollution from coal-fired power plants accounts for more than 13,000 premature deaths, 20,000 heart attacks, and 1.6 million lost workdays in the U.S. each year. The total monetary cost of these health impacts is over $100 billion annually. Yikes. For some more staggering statistics on energy “deathprints”, check out this fascinating Forbes article recommended by fellow Youth Council Member Shannon Kollasch: How Deadly Is Your Kilowatt?
That’s a Case ‘Bro’
Hopefully you’ve grown a little more accepting of nuclear power having been educated about its potential. Nuclear power has only begun its great journey, hopefully one day joining the prestigious alternative-energy ranks alongside solar, hydro, and wind power. Nuclear reactors are only present in 31 U.S. states and 30 countries around the globe – that leaves some room for improvement. Since nuclear power has literally split groups apart (fission pun intended), let’s start changing its reputation and shining a good light on this beautiful, shimmering technology as an energy source of the future. While certainly not the solution to climate change, nuclear power can help to solve our energy crisis by providing cleaner, more reliable energy.
World Nuclear Association: http://world-nuclear.org/nuclear-basics.aspx
EPA’s Nuclear Fact Sheet: https://www.epa.gov/cleanpowerplan/fact-sheet-clean-power-plan-opportunities-nuclear-power
Nuclear Energy Institute: http://www.nei.org/