The Pros and Cons of Nuclear Energy
When you consider nuclear energy pros and cons there are convincing arguments both for and against the use of nuclear power to create electricity. Public opinion is often formed as a result of news events and media being as it is the cons of nuclear energy are often over-stated.
Nuclear Energy Pros
At some point the world’s reserves of fossil fuels will be depleted. That’s not conjecture of fear-mongering – it’s fact as we are taking fuels from the earth that were created over eons. The coal and oil resulted from millions of years of pressure deep in the earth and those resources will be decimated in a few short generations of human power consumption.
Coal produced from mines today is more sulfurous when burned because the rich veins of hard anthracite coal have been used up. Softer coal such as bituminous or lignite burn faster and create higher levels of pollution than anthracite. Experts have estimated our fossil fuels may be almost totally depleted within fifty years. That’s a frightening thought when you consider the ever increasing demands for electricity around the globe.
Nuclear energy also uses a natural resource – uranium. There are huge reserves of uranium and developments in reactors have reduced the need for large quantities of U-235 but eventually the natural resources of uranium will also be mined out of existence. Fortunately, we won’t run out of uranium for about a thousand years and hopefully by then technology will have improved to the point where a truly renewable and sustainable energy resource will be the norm.
Nuclear energy is reliable. Low fuel requirements keep a nuclear plant from suffering when there are shortages or when wars or natural events slow or stop mining efforts Stores of uranium are well distributed around the world so social upheavals and political posturing don’t disrupt supplies.
Nuclear energy pros and cons include “safety” on each list. Methods of building safe nuclear power plants have rapidly improved and in normal operation a nuclear power plant is safer than plants that use fossil fuels. Multi-stage safety mechanisms are designed to handle everything from a temporary glitch to a potential radiation leak and every fail-safe has its own fail-safe in new plant construction.
The reactor core is the center of the nuclear power plant and is housed inside a 9-10- inch thick container of stainless steel. That container is surrounded by thick concrete walls inside a containment structure. That containment structure is inside a steel reinforced 4 ft thick concrete dome and the dome itself is built to handle extreme events such as hurricanes, a crashing airplane and earthquakes.
Sensors at ever level of containment record changes in radiation or humidity or temperature that might indicate a leak in the core. Backup systems automatically activate in response to those sensor readings to stop a chain reaction from occurring. A crucial safety feature is the cooling capacity added by an emergency core cooling system that is designed to provide water to cool the reactor during an emergency.
When considering nuclear energy pros and cons, it’s important to understand the massive number of safety features now included in newer nuclear energy plants that were not available when the first nuclear reactors were built.
Nuclear Energy Cons
The great fear associated with nuclear power is the fear of a meltdown. Coolant water is a necessity in the fission reaction. With water cooling them at all times, the rod that hold the U-235 pellets would quickly overheat to a temperature that would melt the containment system and melt the fuel pellets. The result would be uranium released to the air and is the worst case scenario that causes fear of nuclear energy in the minds of the public.
Radiation is the concern associated with a nuclear core meltdown. In truth, we receive radiation from the sun and we refer to this as background radiation. The damage caused by radiation is at much higher levels than most realize. At very high doses of radiation, death is the result. We associate that level of radiation exposure with the atomic bomb but we have not seen that level of fatality with nuclear energy. Chernobyl was the closest to a major disaster the world has seen and showed the dangers of operating nuclear energy plants without full safety features installed, maintained and operational. Three Mile Island was a particle meltdown but the leaking radiation was properly contained by the containment structures.
The major nuclear energy con is the disposal of nuclear waste. U-235 has a long life and will be radioactive for thousands of years. Nuclear power plants create nuclear waste in the form of spent fuel rods.
These rods filled with uranium pellets have lost the strength to produce electricity yet are dangerous sources of radiation. Proposals to shoot nuclear waste into space carry the potential of polluting other planets or of the waste returning to earth in the future.
The most common procedure for handling radioactive waste is to bury it in specially built underground sites but those sites quickly become filled. Our inability to find a solution to nuclear waste disposal limits the amount of nuclear energy we can use as we cannot generate waste without a way to store it or render it safe.
When considering nuclear energy pros and cons there is a balance of efficient production of electricity far into the future with concerns for the safety of nuclear power plants.
The debate rages year after year and widely publicized nuclear accidents cause fear and resistance in the mind of the public. Nuclear waste disposal is a problem that must be addressed before more nuclear plants are built.