Nuclear power accounted for roughly 10% of the world’s electricity generation in 2018. Moreover, United States made for roughly 31% of the global generation, followed by China and France with roughly 10%. This makes perfect sense; as of May 2021, United States has 93 operable nuclear reactors, while China has 50. However, exactly a year before that, United States had plans for only 3 more reactors, while China worked on 44. So, if things don’t change, China will become the world’s largest nuclear energy producer shortly. Of course, every coin has two sides and the advantages and disadvantages of nuclear energy are equally important. Let’s analyze them.
Advantages of nuclear energy
The following are some of the pros of nuclear energy:
1. Reliable energy source
Unlike wind power or solar power, nuclear power is independent of climate factors. It provides a reliable, predictable, consistent source of energy. The only period when energy production stops is once per 1.5 to 2 years when a nuclear plant needs to be refueled. The numbers aren’t set in stone, though. The United Kingdom’s Heysham II nuclear power plant produced energy for 940 straight days and was taken offline in 2016 for inspection and maintenance, not due to system failure.
A 2013 NASA study and later research show that nuclear energy is one of the safest forms of energy production. Studies found that solar, hydropower, and wind power are safer, but only by a smidgen. Nuclear power is found to have a death rate of 0.07 per terawatt/hour produced from accidents and pollution. In other words, no deaths would occur in an average year, and it would take 14 years for one person to die. Even with this number, which is an upper estimate, the risk of death is 350 times lower than coal energy.
3. Carbon-free and low pollution
Although nuclear power has a low impact on the environment, it’s not pollution-free. But it does produce no carbon dioxide or nitrous oxides and reduce over 471 million metric tons of carbon dioxide yearly, equivalent to 100 million passenger vehicles. It’s also the largest source of carbon-free electricity in the United States, with over 50% of the total. Research shows that it generates 2.5 times the electricity the hydropower does. Furthermore, it generates 2 times more carbon-free electricity than wind power and over 8 times more than solar power.
4. Small land footprint
When we discussed the drawbacks of solar energy, we mentioned that solar farms occupy enormous physical space. Well, according to the United States Department of Energy, a nuclear facility that produces 1000 MW (megawatts) of power occupies roughly 1 square mile. Based on the same study, a solar farm of equal power generation would require 75 square miles. Even worse, a wind farm would need 350 miles. Based on their size comparison, that’s 431 wind turbines or 3125 million solar panels.
5. Affordable and efficient
Drastically less Uranium-235 is required for the production of the same amount of energy using oil or coal. The Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) states that 1 uranium fuel pellet, the size of a gummy bear, generates energy equivalent to 17,000 cubic feet of natural gas, 1 ton of coil, or 149 gallons of oil. Other research shows that nuclear fission is 8,000 times more efficient than traditional fossil fuels. What’s more, the transportation of uranium to the nuclear facility is also cheaper.
Earth’s known reserves of uranium are estimated to last us for approximately 80 more years. In contrast, unless we discover new ones, we’re on track to lose oil reserves by 2052, gas by 2060, and coal by 2088. But even if we do find more, it’s only a matter of time before they run out. Moreover, if scientists make nuclear fusion, rather than nuclear fission, a reality, we would (in theory) never run out of electricity again.
7. Alternative nuclear power sources exist
In absence of large amounts of plutonium, nuclear plants use uranium. However, Thorium-90 is more plentiful on Earth, produces less nuclear waste, and the waste produced is significantly less radioactive. Additionally, the creation of a nuclear weapon using thorium is drastically harder.
Disadvantages of nuclear energy
Here are some of the notable cons of nuclear energy:
1. Currently non-renewable
Nuclear fission splits atoms of Uranium-235 into lighter elements, Krypton-92 and Barium-141 and the missing mass is converted into large amounts of nuclear energy. However, Uranium-235 comes from uranium ore, which is non-renewable and extracted from open-pits or deep underground mines. Mines in Australia, Canada, and Kazakhstan account for roughly 68% of the world’s uranium ore production.
2. Exorbitant upfront cost
Although highly efficient and affordable to maintain once in operation, nuclear power plants that produced about 1100 MW of energy cost between $6 billion and $9 billion in 2008. However, prices rose drastically since then. For example, a two-reactor building project in South Carolina started in 2008 with an estimated price of $14 billion, had to cease work in 2019 because the cost rose to over $23 billion.
3. Creates nuclear waste
Mining and enrichment of uranium aren’t environmentally-friendly processes. Here’s what happens:
Nuclear facilities produce nuclear radioactive waste during their operation. Close to 97% of that waste is relatively harmless, and its radioactivity and heat expire in a few days or weeks. The other 3% is high-level waste that remains radioactive for hundreds, thousands, even millions of years and retains its immense heat for quite a while. For that reason, we must bury it hundreds, even thousands of meters below ground, so it doesn’t affect nature and living beings.
After the extraction of uranium, radioactive particles and rock that remains can pollute sources of water close by and cause erosion. Moreover, the transportation of uranium to the surface can expose miners to high amounts of radiation.
4. Water pollution
Nuclear power plants can pollute water because water cools the nuclear fission chambers in the pressurized water reactors (PWRs) and boiling water reactors (BWRs). In both cases, a fuel leak can contaminate water or steam and transport it to the rest of the system. Additionally, nuclear waste stored deep underground can potentially leak into groundwater.
5. Nuclear accidents
Major nuclear reactor accidents in Kyshtym, Chernobyl, and Fukushima caused thousands of accident-related deaths, both directly (acute radiation poisoning) and passively (multiple types of cancer, weakened immune system). However, they were the result of poor maintenance, human error, and natural disasters such as earthquakes and tsunami, not lack of security measures.