To Redeem or to Reject?
The Vilification of Nuclear Energy
Growing up within 10 miles of a power plant for nuclear energy, I was often told to prepare for the worst; preparation included knowing an evacuation route or keeping gas masks in the house at all times in case of a meltdown at the power plant. We are all subjected to media coverage that harps on the negative effects of nuclear power. The portrayal of nuclear incidents in popular movies and books further increases fears and misunderstandings about nuclear power plants.
Such public opinion and fears stemming from the threat of a nuclear disaster have kept the U.S. from utilizing nuclear power to make up a greater portion of its energy supply. These fears are justified given past events such as the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi accident where an earthquake caused three reactors to meltdown. This event was rated level 7 on the International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale, due to highly radioactive releases throughout days 4 to 6.
Because of the widespread media coverage of this event, most people think nuclear energy is too dangerous to utilize. But with the help of continued research and development, nuclear energy has evolved into a safer and more sustainable energy source. This in turn contributes to a greener and more economically sound future.
Why Nuclear Energy?
Unlike fossil fuels, production via nuclear reactions does not release significant amounts of greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere. Nuclear power is the second-largest source of low-carbon energy next to hydropower. By harnessing the power of atomic reactions, we can reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and mitigate the environmental impact caused by carbon emissions.
Unlike traditional renewable energy sources such as wind and solar power, nuclear power plants provide a continuous supply of reliable energy when operated at full capacity. Because of this, nuclear power is a reliable and efficient source of electricity that may be able to meet global energy demands while reducing carbon emissions.
But What is Nuclear Energy?
Nuclear Energy is the energy in the nucleus of an atom. It is released as heat by splitting the nuclei of specific materials. The most commonly used material to generate nuclear energy is uranium. Uranium is a weakly radioactive heavy metal found in the Earth’s crust that contributes to low levels of natural background radiation. The heat that is released is then used to produce steam, which drives turbines and generates electricity in nuclear power plants.
Nuclear Energy in the U.S. Context
Environmental benefits aside, nuclear power could be an advancement that is significant for our domestic economy. The construction, operation, and maintenance of nuclear power plants creates jobs and stimulates local economies. Additionally, the nuclear industry promotes continued scientific research, thereby driving innovation and contributing to economic growth. Because of ongoing research and development, this field of study is constantly changing allowing for more jobs to be created and advancements in this field of work.
In today’s society, which very much emphasizes sustainable energy, the public is becoming more accepting of the idea of nuclear power. This growing acceptance also coincides with the development of advanced safety measures.
Nuclear Energy Beyond the U.S.
Today, nuclear power plays a significant role in the global energy landscape providing about 10 percent of the world’s electricity using about 440 nuclear power reactors. The U.S. alone has 93 operable reactors and produces the most nuclear power in the world. Even though the US is the greatest producer of nuclear power (largely for national defense purposes), nuclear power only provides 20 percent of the country’s electricity. The U.S. still primarily relies on coal and gas for their everyday needs.
Just because the U.S. isn’t fully utilizing this form of sustainable energy for their energy needs, this doesn’t mean other countries are doing the same. Countries, including France and Sweden, rely heavily on nuclear power; more than 70 percent of their electricity is generated from nuclear reactors. Countries such as these have demonstrated that a well-managed nuclear power grid can effectively reduce carbon emissions while maintaining a stable and reliable energy supply.
Latest Innovations in Nuclear Energy
Ongoing research is being done daily to address concerns and further improve the safety, efficiency, and sustainability of nuclear power. A key area of focus is advanced reactor designs. Scientists are exploring these designs, which include small modular reactors (SMRs) and Generation IV reactors. SMRs are able to enhance safety features, scalability, and the potential for modular construction. Meanwhile, generation IV reactors use advanced fuel cycles to improve efficiency and reduce waste generated.
Waste management is another key area of focus in nuclear energy research. Nuclear waste is a big concern on people’s minds when it comes to nuclear power. Nuclear waste is hazardous because it emits radioactive particles which, if not properly managed, can cause cancerous growths in humans and genetic damage or mutation to animals and plants. Scientists are trying to find new ways to properly dispose of this waste to protect us and our environment. Existing strategies include deep geological repositories, where waste is stored in stable rock formations deep underground. This way of managing waste isolates it from the environment permanently and protects any negative effects of this waste from entering our ecosystem. Furthermore, advancements in waste treatment technologies, such as advanced separation techniques, aim to reduce the toxicity and volume of nuclear waste entering our environment.
All in all, most would agree that nuclear power is a viable and environmentally friendly solution to our increasing everyday energy demands. By being able to harness the energy potential of nuclear fission, we can reduce carbon emissions, ensure a reliable and constant energy supply, and decrease our dependence on nonrenewable fossil fuels.