You may have heard a thing or two about nuclear energy in the news lately. Some people are in favor of it, while others are staunchly against it. But what’s the truth? Why nuclear energy is surrounded by a lot of controversies? Is nuclear energy safe? What are the benefits? And what are the risks?
Like any other energy source, nuclear energy has its pros and cons as well. Its outcomes may vary from good to bad or, in some unfortunate cases, can be worst. But before digging further into the facts about nuclear energy, we should first acquaint ourselves with what nuclear energy is.
What is Nuclear Energy and How Is It Generated?
Nuclear energy is an extremely powerful source of energy. It is a form of energy released from the splitting of a nucleus of an atom. The heat energy released in the process is harnessed to generate electricity (Nuclear explained, 2022).
In 2021, nuclear power plants produced 778 billion kilowatt hours of electricity (Monthly Energy Review, 2022). That’s enough to power more than 60 million homes, and it accounts for 50% of America’s clean energy. Nuclear energy is a critical part of any country’s clean energy mix, and it’s a vital tool in our fight against climate change. Let’s now examine some fascinating nuclear energy facts.
- Uranium is the source of nuclear energy, a non-renewable resource that needs to be mined.
- Nuclear energy is considered clean energy as it is one of the low-carbon energy sources, with the second smallest carbon footprint of all the electricity-generating technologies (Nuclear Power in a Clean Energy System, 2019). That’s because, when it comes to generating electricity, nuclear is one of the most efficient and lowest-emitting sources of greenhouse gas emissions.
- Nuclear is also an essential part of the global response to climate change and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. It’s one of the cleanest and most reliable sources of energy available, and it helps reduce our reliance on fossil fuels.Nuclear power has cut CO2 emissions by more than 60 gigatonnes during the past 50 years, which is equivalent to nearly two years’ worth of global energy-related emissions (Nuclear Power in a Clean Energy System, 2019).
- The cost of operating a nuclear plant is a fraction of the cost of other forms of energy generation.
- There are 439 nuclear power plants in use worldwide. The US alone is home to 96 of the world’s operating nuclear power facilities, followed by France with 58, China with 50, and Russia with 38.
- France is the largest generator of electricity from nuclear power. 13 nations generated at least 25% of their electricity from nuclear sources in 2020, with France accounting for 70% of the world’s nuclear electricity production (Share of nuclear power in total domestic electricity generation in 2021, 2021). Due to its extremely low production costs, the European nation is also the largest net exporter of energy in the entire world.
- Nuclear Reactor Performance Has Significantly Improved Over Time. Reactor capacity has dramatically expanded since the advent of nuclear energy in the 1970s. In 2020, more than 66% of power plants had capacities greater than 80%, up from slightly under 30% in 1970 (Nuclear Power in the World Today, 2022).
- 20% of the electricity in the US is produced by nuclear power plants. In the US, one in five homes and businesses is fueled by nuclear energy.
- Nuclear energy is also being used in space expeditions. The Mars rovers are powered by nuclear energy. Prior Mars missions depended on solar panels, but dust accumulation on the panels or days with insufficient sunshine slowed down the exploring process.
- Contrary to what some people might believe, nuclear is safe and secure. While there is cause for concern over radiation exposure, some study suggests that being around personal electronics exposes you to more radiation over the course of your lifetime than being close to a nuclear power station. Only water vapor is released into the environment by nuclear power facilities. In fact, over the course of a year, your granite counter tops emit more radiation than living adjacent to a nuclear power plant (Nuclear Power in a Clean Energy System, 2019).
- There have been only three major catastrophes in the entire history of nuclear energy generation – Chernobyl, Fukushima, and Three Mile Islands. In contrast to these nuclear catastrophes, there have been over ten significant catastrophes involving fossil fuel energy in the previous 25 years, the greatest of which was the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
- There are cleaning cycles in nuclear power reactors. Nuclear power facilities must shut down every 1.5 to 2 years to remove radioactive waste.
- Nuclear waste is one of the major drawbacks of Nuclear energy, as the disposal of this waste can be a hassle. Due to waste disposal, and safety concerns, numerous countries, including Germany, Spain, and Switzerland, have chosen to phase out nuclear power by 2030 (Nuclear Power in a Clean Energy System, 2019).
- The main disadvantage of nuclear energy is the potential for a nuclear meltdown. This happens when the core of the reactor gets too hot, and the fuel rods melt. If this happens, it could cause a serious radiation leak that would contaminate the area for miles around.
- For cooling and the creation of steam, nuclear power plants consume a lot of water. Fish and other aquatic species may be impacted when huge amounts of water are removed from a lake or river by some nuclear power facilities, or when hot water is dumped back into the lake or river.
Here’s the bottom line: nuclear energy is a low-carbon energy source that has the potential to generate large amounts of electricity with minimal environmental impact. It’s a controversial technology, but its supporters argue that it’s a necessary evil in the fight against climate change.
That said, the nuclear industry is currently in a slump, and it’s unclear if and when it will recover. In the meantime, renewable energy sources like solar and wind are becoming increasingly affordable and popular.
So, should we be investing in nuclear energy? That’s a decision that each individual, country, and company will have to make based on their own values and priorities.
- Monthly Energy Review. (2022, Nov 22). Retrieved from EIA: https://www.eia.gov/totalenergy/data/monthly/index.php
- Nuclear explained. (2022, July 07). Retrieved from https://www.eia.gov/: https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/nuclear/
- Nuclear explained. (2022, Nov 23). Retrieved from eia: https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/nuclear/
- Nuclear Power in a Clean Energy System. (2019, May). Retrieved from IEA: https://www.iea.org/reports/nuclear-power-in-a-clean-energy-system
- Nuclear Power in the World Today. (2022, Oct). Retrieved from world-nuclear: https://world-nuclear.org/information-library/current-and-future-generation/nuclear-power-in-the-world-today.aspx
- Share of nuclear power in total domestic electricity generation in 2021. (2021). Retrieved from statista: https://www.statista.com/statistics/270367/share-of-nuclear-power-in-the-power-supply-of-selected-countries/