Nuclear fission occurs through two processes. It is either a process of radioactive decay or it forms from a nuclear reaction. This causes the nucleus of an atom to split into smaller parts, creating free neutrons and gamma protons. At the same time, a rather large amount of energy is released that can be captured for a variety of purposes.
First discovered in 1938 by Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann, the advantages and disadvantages of nuclear fission must be carefully considered because of the amount of power this process generates.
The Advantages of Nuclear Fission
1. It can provide cheap energy resources for the planet.
Nuclear fission is responsible for more than 10% of the electricity that the planet currently consumed. More than 30 nations use this form of energy at some level to create the power that is needed for the modern lifestyle to be lived. Although other forms of energy are available, nuclear fission is one of the cheapest and allows more people to access the resources they need.
2. It offers a low-emission energy solution.
Many forms of traditional power generation require fossil fuels to be combusted. That combustion releases particles and gases into the air that offer the potential of harmful effects. From global warming to air quality concerns, these are essentially eliminated when nuclear fission is used instead of combustion. There is no CO2 released during this process.
3. It works for extended periods of time.
A nuclear fission reaction that is well-controlled can continue to produce energy for 24-36 months. To create a similar level of energy, combustible materials would need to be consumed at a very rapid pace. Wood heating is often 60% efficient or less, while coal heating can be 70-90% efficient when properly controlled. Nuclear energy is 8,000 times more efficient than these resources.
4. It is a reliable source of energy.
The current nuclear fission plants that produce power are designed to operate for 30-50 years. We also have enough uranium stockpiled globally to provide energy resources for up to another century, with the ability to mine and refine more. Because this power resource can run without interruption for lengthy periods of time, no matter what the weather conditions may be.
5. It provides high concentrations of energy.
Nuclear fission creates a large amount of energy from a very small amount of fuel. This allows us to produce the amount of energy that is required without the need to tap into reserve products or stockpiled items to maintain the current quality of life. It has one of the best energy densities that is known to humanity at this time.
6. It has the lowest annual mortality rate of any energy resource.
According to Forbes, the global average mortality rate for nuclear fission is about 90 deaths per trillion kilowatt hours. Even renewable energy resources, such as wind power, have a mortality rate of 150 deaths per trillion kilowatt hours. Rooftop solar has 440 deaths per trillion kilowatt hours. The global average for coal? 170,000 deaths per trillion kilowatt hours, though if China is excluded from those figures, the numbers for coal drop to under 20,000.
7. It has low ongoing operational costs.
How cheap is nuclear fission? When the ongoing production rates are compared to solar and wind energy, the costs are virtually similar. Once a nuclear plant gets up and running, it is one of the most effective and cheapest forms of energy that we have. When compared to coal and natural gas, nuclear fission is more than a full cent cheaper per kilowatt hour.
8. It offers the potential of recycling.
Although the fuel supply for nuclear fission is finite, we do have several options. Thorium works to create the fission process just like uranium does. Some types of nuclear power will even create their own fuel while creating the power we need, offering us the potential for recycling. It isn’t a renewable resource like wind or solar energy, but it is the closest thing we have at this level of energy density.
The Disadvantages of Nuclear Fission
1. It is dangerous.
Tragic events such as Chernobyl and Fukushima show us just how dangerous the process of nuclear fission can be. In July 2017, underwater robots found melted nuclear fuel, up to 3 feet thick, underneath the core inside the primary containment vessel at their Unit 3 reactor. This creates a radiation-exposure event that can be dangerous to human and animal health.
2. It is explosive.
Nuclear fission can be the foundation of cheap and clean power. It can also be the foundation of powerful weapons that create mass casualties. The atomic bombs, which start with the same fission reaction, that were dropped in Japan killed up to 226,000 people over a 4-month period. About half of those deaths occurred on the same day. That means this technology is a very real threat to continued life on our planet.
3. It creates harmful waste products.
Nuclear fission can create clean-burning energy, but the radioactive waste products can be very harmful to the environment. Without proper disposal sites, toxic waste dumps can damage a regional environment for hundreds of years. Even an authorized nuclear disposal site, such as the Hanford Site in Washington State, offers the potential of having radioactive plutonium particles be released into the atmosphere.
4. It is not a renewable energy resource.
Although nuclear fission creates a clean-type of energy, like fossil fuels, it is not a renewable energy resource with our current technologies. That means at some point, unless energy technologies evolve, there must be an alternative energy technology developed to allow society to continue on its current course.
5. It can develop long-term health issues for people exposed.
Cancers and other health concerns can develop long after the radiation from a nuclear fission reaction or waste product from energy production occurs. Some cancers take 3-4 decades to develop and can be difficult to treat.
6. It has high start-up costs.
From 2002-2008, the cost of a new nuclear plant rose from $2 billion to $9 billion per unit in the United States. Costs in Canada and Europe are even higher for new plants. Although it would be cost-effective once online and produce power for a minimum of 40-50 years, if not longer, it would require several years for the expenditures for new facilities to pay for themselves. These costs do not include any financing or public-risk costs that may be associated with the facility.
The advantages and disadvantages of nuclear fission show us that when it is used appropriately, it can be an amazing benefit to society. When it is used incorrectly, this technology has the power to destroy life as we know it.