Nuclear power: Two words that can conjure up both positive and negative thoughts and emotions in nearly every person on the planet.

On the one hand, it’s undeniable that nuclear energy is everywhere on the planet, powering everything from submarines to cities and towns across the world. On the other hand, there’s always the fear of an accident like the one that occurred at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in 2011. In a series of incidents that started with a massive 9.0 magnitude earthquake followed by a tsunami, the world watched in horror as three of the plants reactors went into meltdown, despite the valiant efforts of crews that remained to frantically try to avoid just such a disaster from occurring.

On the other side of the proverbial coin, of course, is the fact that nuclear power plants provide clean, reliable, efficient power to millions of people, day in and day out.

What is Nuclear Power?

Nuclear power plants create energy through the process of nuclear fission — when one atom splits into two. The splitting of the atom releases an incredible amount of heat and gamma radiation, or radiation made of high-energy photons. The result is two atoms which later release beta radiation (superfast electrons) and gamma radiation of their own, as well. Once this happens, the nuclear power plant uses the heated water in the reactors to generate steam, spin a turbine and generate electricity, in the same way that a conventionally (fossil fuel) powered plant does.

Of course, the radioactive material that produces the heat and steam to generate power must be kept cool at all times. When cooling fails, there is a risk of “meltdown” and the release of radioactive materials into the atmosphere.

Today’s Nuclear Power Plants

The nuclear power plants of today are considered safer than their predecessors, according to the World Nuclear Association. They point out that there have been only 3 major accidents involving nuclear power plants in nearly six decades of continuous civil operation throughout the world. The three major incidents, each of which involved the release of radioactive materials into the atmosphere were:

  • Three Mile Island in the U.S.A. which occurred in 1979
  • Chernobyl in Ukraine which occurred in 1986 (The worst nuclear accident in the history of the industry)
  • Fukushima Daiichi in Japan which occurred just 6 years ago in 2011.

Proponents point to this fact as “proof” that nuclear energy is, overall, a safe means of providing clean energy and also point to the fact that nuclear power plants are becoming safer all the time.

Still, there is the lingering problem of existing older plants, and how they can be made safer as they age.

Other Uses for Nuclear Power

Apart from generating electricity, nuclear power helps enable many other technologies. For example, NASA is in the process of resurrecting nuclear technology it shelved in the 1970s in order to produce a rocket that can reach Mars. (Unlike conventional rockets that burn fuel to create thrust, a nuclear-powered rocket uses a reactor to heat a propellant like liquid hydrogen, which then expands through a nozzle to power the craft. That doubles the efficiency at which the rocket uses fuel, allowing for both a much smaller rocket ship and a significantly shorter transit time.)

Nuclear energy is also used to power American aircraft carriers. In fact, nuclear-powered aircraft carriers are the signature expression of American military power. No other combat system available comes close to delivering so much military might for months at a time without requiring land bases near the action to re-fuel.

Submarines that run on nuclear power have significant advantages over their conventionally (battery) powered counterparts. That’s because nuclear propulsion doesn’t require air to operate, which frees the ships from the need to surface frequently. It also allows them to operate continuously for long periods of time without the need to interrupt a mission for refuelling. In fact, today’s nuclear-powered subs can go without refuelling for their entire 25 year lifespan!

Considering the Pros and Cons of Nuclear Power

The subject of nuclear power, as mentioned, is a politically and emotionally charged one. As with any such subject, there are proponents and opponents and each group offers reasonable arguments for their positions on the matter. Let’s consider the pros and the cons ourselves …

The Argument For Nuclear Power:

  • It provides clean (non fossil-fuel derived) energy to millions, which in turn helps keep our atmosphere clean in an era where global warming and climate change are grave dangers.
  • When well managed, nuclear power plants have the lowest rate of “down-time” of any type of power plant in existence today.
  • They create thousands and thousands of jobs (The Nuclear Energy Institute estimates that nuclear industry plant owners, suppliers and related companies generate around $50 billion in revenue each year and provide 100,000 jobs worldwide.)

The Argument Against Nuclear Power:

  • When something goes wrong, the results can negatively affect huge swathes of the population.
  • Nuclear Power Plants are extremely expensive in many parts of the world in an era where costs for producing renewable energy sources are dropping fast.
  • There’s the problem of where to store radioactive waste. (Nobody wants it stored in their “backyard”, especially when you consider that it takes tens of thousands of years for it to decay to safe radioactive levels!)

The Future of Nuclear Power

Researchers are looking for fail-safe ways to ensure that reactors can be cooled no matter what happens. For example, reactors cooled with molten salt are currently being researched at the Shanghai Institute of Applied Physics.

Another proposal by the International Atomic Energy Agency calls for the building of small, modular reactors with the goal of installing them on an “as needed” basis. However, this idea is still being tested and explored, and it could be quite some time before it becomes standard protocol in the nuclear industry.

For now, it seems, the world will have to wait a while to see how the future of nuclear energy will actually manifest!

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