Although nuclear energy was very popular in the 1970′s in the United States, a combination of bad press from the Three Mile Island malfunction and reduced oil prices caused the negatives to outweigh the advantages of nuclear energy. Interest in this form of energy began to fade. Today, as the world looks for always-on power generation sources that do not emit carbon, nuclear is coming back into consideration. However, like any technology, there are nuclear energy advantages and disadvantages. The video below shows a debate at TED covering the pros and cons of nuclear energy.
The benefits of nuclear power are relatively clear. Generation of power via nuclear energy is relatively cheap once the plant has been built. Nuclear plants are relatively clean—although small quantities of radioactive waste are generated, uranium mines are much less damaging to the environment than a coal strip-mining operation, the gas that escapes from the cooling tower is just steam, and the discharge from the plant is simply warm water. Nuclear plants also have a very long life—plants today are designed for a minimum of a fifty year life. Finally, since nuclear plants use a fission reaction, instead of burning fossil fuels, to generate heat to make steam to turn a turbine, they release no greenhouse gasses into the air.
Advantages of Nuclear Energy
- Large amount of energy produced per acre of land used.
- Lots of technological advances still to be made will increase efficiency, safety.
- Small amount of fuel can produce a huge amount of energy.
- Nuclear fission could solve a lot of the disadvantages.
- Low emissions source of reliable and constant power generation.
- Future Thorium reactors or progress on nuclear fusion could eliminate these concerns.
Nuclear plants, on the other hand, have three significant nuclear energy cons or problems. The first of these nuclear energy disadvantages is although they are relatively cheap to run, they are extremely expensive to build. At construction costs of up to $4400 per kilowatt-hour, they are extremely expensive to build—almost 9 billion dollars for a 2000 megawatt hour plant. Second of all, there are some concerns that the world’s uranium is approximately 100 years away from depletion and that the cost of uranium (which is about ¼ of the ongoing cost of operating a plant) could go up significantly. Finally, the waste is a problem. First of all, it will remain dangerous for hundreds of thousands of years which makes it extremely hard to store. Second of all, although it can be reprocessed, the act of reprocessing is not only dangerous, but also runs the risk of creating material which could be used in nuclear weapons (although India has developed a technology which could solve this problem).
Disadvantages of Nuclear Energy
- Safety concerns due to potential for uncontrolled reactions.
- Waste byproducts must be stored properly to avoid impact on environment.
- Fuel source is limited making it a non-renewable energy source and unsustainable.
- Waste from some reactors can be used to produce weapons grade materials for nuclear weapons.
- Waste will remain toxic for long periods after use.
Nuclear energy is, quite simply, big. It can create big amounts of electricity, it has big advantages, and it has big problems. As the world deals with its big energy problems, nuclear generation may be one of the solutions.Sponsors: