When we discuss the potential energy options that are available to us today, nuclear resources must be one of our top considerations. It’s a hot topic because other forms of renewable energy, such as wind and solar, have not had a chance to prove themselves as a viable solution to meet our needs on a planetary scale.
Because our energy demands are constantly growing as population levels rise, it is imperative for us to explore the advantages and disadvantages of nuclear energy. The process used to produce this power comes from fission. This outcome occurs when the atom of a nucleus gets split to release a significant amount of energy.
Nuclear power facilities continuously split atoms to create chain reactions that offer high levels of sustainable energy for a long time. We gain the benefit of a constant and stable supply of power at the risk of more radiation exposure. Additional critical factors must also be evaluated before the construction of a facility.
Let’s take a closer look at the crucial ideas that govern nuclear energy today.
List of the Advantages of Nuclear Energy
1. Nuclear energy provides us with high power output.
One of the best benefits of nuclear energy is that it provides us with an exceptionally high fuel-to-power output ratio. It has the ability to meet industrial and urban needs with a single reactor. When we placed multiple ones in the same facility, then the support for regional electrical infrastructures allows us to complete the tasks of a modern lifestyle.
It only takes a small amount of refined uranium to fuel a massive electrical power generation facility. That makes nuclear energy one of the most cost-effective resources that’s available on our planet today.
2. It provides us with power without generating additional greenhouse gas emissions.
When we use coal or natural gas to create electricity, we must combust those raw materials to generate enough heat to power turbines and generators. That means we pay a greenhouse gas emissions cost for the mining, transportation, building, and production activities that exist in these energy areas.
Nuclear energy takes a different approach. Although we still pay fossil fuel costs when mining and transporting uranium, splitting atoms through fission doesn’t produce harmful emissions. Once a facility comes online, we have a clean energy resource. The Nuclear Energy Institute estimates that over 60% of today’s electricity that gets classified as being emissions-free comes from this industry.
3. Electricity from nuclear power is very affordable.
Even though the cost of building a nuclear plant is high, the electricity it generates once it becomes operational is inexpensive. The power that comes from a nuclear reactor is cheaper than any other fossil fuel that we use today. Uranium is not as expensive as some may believe, and only a little bit is needed to produce a significant amount of energy.
When you consider that the average lifecycle of a nuclear facility is at least 40 years, and retrofitting can double that time span, the lower operating costs almost always outweigh the high capital expenses that are necessary to build it in the first place.
4. Nuclear energy doesn’t rely on fossil fuels to generate power.
Uranium is thought to have come from a supernova or several of them that occurred during the formation of our solar system. It is not a fossil fuel because it does not contain decayed organic matter. That means it does not produce emissions, nor does it rely on fossil fuels to generate the energy we need. From an economic standpoint, that means this industry is not affected by the unpredictability of natural gas or crude oil futures.
Using nuclear power means that we won’t be depleting our planetary supply of resources as quickly as we would without it. We can produce significant levels of energy with much less fuel because of this resource.
5. It provides us with a positive economic impact.
Nuclear energy provides all of us with a variety of benefits that positively impact the economy. Local communities enjoy the employment opportunities and prosperity that facilities can bring. The Nuclear Energy Institute estimates that a single power plant can produce 700 permanent jobs, thousands of temporary construction positions, and many more indirect employment opportunities that support these workers. Since most facilities have two reactors, then you can double those figures.
The average coal-fired power plants only produce 90 jobs, while natural gas facilities only create 50 new employment positions. Each facility then assists in the creation of over $500 million in economic activities.
6. Nuclear energy provides a foundation for national security.
The United States is a global leader in the production of nuclear energy. When this country has a robust civil nuclear sector, then the expertise it develops over time allows American influences to set international rules for using technologies in this area. This benefit is a critical component of being able to keep nuclear materials out of the possession of bad actors.
The reactor exports of the nuclear energy industry allow the United States to form 100-year strategic relationships globally to encompass the construction, operations, or decommissioning of power-generating facilities.
7. National defense structures use nuclear energy to provide security.
The Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program has almost 100 naval nuclear reactors that power various submarines and aircraft carriers. These energy resources are supplied and serviced by thousands of workers. Once an individual’s military service is over in this field, it is possible to have a career in the civilian nuclear industry that pays exceptionally well. Scientists and engineers who understand this technology make some of the highest wages available in the military today.
We must continue to focus on nuclear energy because it maintains our intellectual chain of supply. If we push this industry away, then we’re going to lose the scientists who develop new resources for this industry.
8. Nuclear energy is a highly efficient energy resource.
The average efficiency rate for the American nuclear energy industry continues to be above 90%. There isn’t another resource available to us today that can reach this rate. When we maximize our infrastructure assets economically with this benefit, then the current industry supports over $12 billion in state and federal tax revenues and almost 500,000 jobs.
Nuclear currently supplies about 20% of the electricity that the United States uses each year. It is the one resource that fills in the gaps when spikes occur during heatwaves or cold stretches to ensure outages don’t occur.
9. It doesn’t rely on specific weather conditions or pipelines.
Nuclear power plants keep up to two years of fuel available at each location. Because the reactors are kept indoors, specific weather conditions don’t need to be present for us to have access to the electricity we need. Although challenges exist for the management of the spent fuel, we don’t need to use pipelines to ship resources to each facility. This benefit creates more energy independence because it’s a domestic fuel that remains stable with its pricing structure.
10. Nuclear energy has a high energy density.
The process of fission creates an energy production rate that’s 8,000 times more efficient than what we can generate from traditional fossil fuels. Since it requires less fuel to produce what we need, then that means less waste occurs. There isn’t another resource available to use right now that can generate that level of power through the controls that we currently have in place. Only plutonium-239, deuterium, and antimatter have higher specific energy, and two of those three resources are still in the experimental stages.
Even when we look at the use of thorium for the future of the nuclear energy industry, uranium still offers a higher density level. That’s why this industry is such a tremendous resource for us to use.
11. Today’s nuclear facilities can generate tomorrow’s fuel.
One of the best advantages that the nuclear energy industry offers is the ability to recycle spent fuel to generate more energy. The recycling process takes advantage of the creation of thorium, allowing for additional refinement to reduce our dependence on uranium. Several different reactor designs are possible for this alternative fuel- colluding heavy water reactors, pressurized water reactors, and fast neutron reactors. Many of these can get added to existing facilities to increase the amount of energy that we can produce.
List of the Disadvantages of Nuclear Energy
1. Nuclear energy still relies on fossil fuels.
Did you know that one uranium fuel pellet creates as much energy as 2,000 pounds of coal? The only problem with this natural resource is that it doesn’t come out of the ground ready to go into a nuclear reactor. It might have the power to replace 149 gallons of oil or 17,000 ft.³ of natural gas, but we must mine and process it first before we can use it as a fuel resource.
The only way we can do that is to use fossil fuels to mine, mill, convert, and enrich it. Nuclear reactors require high concentrations of uranium-235 to be useful. We covert it into a powder, press it into fuel pellets and then place them in closed metal tubes that we use as fuel assemblies. Each activity has a cost that creates emissions that we must manage.
2. Nuclear power facilities can run a long time, but it is not a continuous process.
A single fuel assembly spends about 60 months in a reactor during his average lifespan. This resource powers the system that gives us the electricity that we use every day. Although nuclear energy is a long-lasting resource, it is not one that is continuous. Each facility stops generating power every 18 to 24 months so that it can replace 1/3 of its fuel assemblies.
The removed assemblies then get placed into a spent fuel pool where they can cool over time. The radioactive by-products remain contained in the assembly as the new ones go into the reactor. This process usually takes between 30-45 days to complete.
3. We have no way to dispose of safe fuel in the United States.
Every facility in the United States is responsible for storing its used fuel. This disadvantage of nuclear energy continues even when a reactor goes offline permanently. The industry is currently awaiting the completion of a permanent disposal repository or a consolidated in-term storage site that can manage all of the waste that is currently in storage.
As of January 2020, the United States has more than 90,000 metric tons of nuclear waste that requires disposal. The commercial power industry by itself has generated more spent fuel than any other country. It is enough to fill a football field about 20 meters deep.
4. Several accidents involving nuclear facilities have happened in the past.
The thought of a nuclear accident is one that can send shivers down a person’s spine. Although industry experts aren’t concerned about this disadvantage, the fallout from Chernobyl, Fukushima, and Three Mile Island did create increases in cancer risks for an entire generation of people exposed to radioactive materials.
Although the threat of a direct injury is minimal when an accident occurs, the results can impact the life of a victim several decades later. Many different cancers and adverse health conditions are directly associated with nuclear incidents. Immediate casualties aren’t high, but the physical and environmental impacts remain an issue.
5. It takes a long time and a lot of money to build a new nuclear facility.
The minimum amount of time it takes to build a new nuclear facility is five years using our current construction methods. It typically takes at least twice as long to have the reactor begin producing power, and sometimes it can take up to 20 years to start generating electricity. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, the first generation of facilities proved to be so costly that half of the projects were abandoned before completion. Forbes once called it the largest managerial disaster in business history.
Between 2002 to 2008, the cost estimates for a new facility rose from about $4 billion per unit to over $9 billion dollars. The financing packages to build the nuclear power plants that have made it beyond the planning stages are so high that they have cost taxpayers more than the market value of the power they are generating.
6. Nuclear energy facilities are a target for potential terrorism.
Only two significant nuclear attacks have happened in the history of humanity. Both of them were launched by the United States, in conjunction with their allies, against Japan. The cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki will live on in infamy because of the status. Now that the Cold War years are over, the biggest threat to our safety from a nuclear standpoint involves a terrorist attack on a power generation facility.
The uranium used to generate power in these facilities is of a different grade than what goes into a weapon. Weapons-grade materials can get synthesized from it, and the intentional meltdown of a reactor could be devastating to local populations. When this technology gets into the wrong hands, bad things can happen.
7. It is not a renewable fuel resource.
Nuclear energy might provide us with a long-lasting power resource, but it isn’t one that is renewable. Although we have uranium in abundant supply, the amount is still limited as it is with fossil fuels. We still run the risk of running out of it eventually. Researchers are exploring several alternatives that could be useful, with thorium being one of the most promising options available right now.
Thorium is more abundant in nature than uranium. It’s fertile instead of fissile, so it can only be used as a fuel in conjunction with a material like recycled plutonium. Molten salt reactors are well-suited to this resource since normal fabrications get avoided.
8. The United States won’t be the only global nuclear superpower for long.
Although the American nuclear energy industry is the biggest in the world, Russia and China are making strong moves to influence the global direction of power development in the future. A total of 17 different reactors of Russian design are currently under construction in countries like Belarus, India, Bangladesh, Turkey, and Slovakia.
China has brought 26 reactors online in just the past five years to create higher levels of domestic energy. Another 13 facilities are currently under construction, with another 12 being built around the world. Argentina and the United Kingdom have both started working with them.
9. The mining processes to obtain uranium ore are not always ecofriendly.
Uranium has a natural level of radiation that can become problematic when its particles enter the atmosphere. Many ore-producing facilities use open-pit mining methods to extract this raw material, leaving behind potentially harmful particles through this work. It can also lead to erosion problems and a higher risk of water contamination.
Underground mining exposes workers to higher levels of radiation. It also produces radioactive waste rock during the extraction, processing, and refinement work.
10. When a nuclear power plant closes, it devastates the local economy.
When a nuclear plant must close prematurely, it has a devastating impact on the surrounding communities. When the Vermont Yankee facility shut down in 2014, the town of Vernon found itself forced to cut its annual budget by 50%. That meant there were fewer youth sports teams, volunteers for the Boys and Girls Club, and other programs because all of the employees relocated to find other jobs. The plant’s $500 million contribution to the regional economy could be only $13 million by the end of 2020.
The shutdown of the Zion Nuclear Power Station in Illinois created an annual loss of $18 million of income in 1998. The town now has fewer police officers patrolling the town and property taxes are astronomical. The same $300,000 home that paid $8,000 per year in the 1990s is now paying $20,000 annually.
11. Renewed licensing is necessary for the nuclear energy industry to continue operations.
Half of the nuclear power plants in the United States must obtain a second renewed operating license by the year 2040. If these facilities don’t achieve this outcome, then they cannot continue functioning. The licenses can be renewed for a 20-year increment after the issuance of the first one. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission licenses facilities to operate for only 40 years initially.
Plant inspections, environmental impact reviews, and extensive safety testing are necessary to ensure a thorough risk assessment takes place. In 2029, the first plant to reach 60 years of operation will encounter this disadvantage and face a potential shutdown.
The American Society of Civil Engineers recently gave the energy infrastructure of the United States a D+ grade. Frequent under-investment in grid expansions or upgrades have not kept up with the pace of increasing power needs. The result could be power outages that become more frequent and last longer, costing the average family over $3,400.
The first step to correct this problem is to maintain as much of the baseload power capacity as possible. That means the existing nuclear power plants must receive preservation attention. If a nuclear power plant gets prematurely shut down, then that resource is gone forever.
Then we must invest in new power plants and processes that can meet our current and future needs. This industry currently produces enough electricity to power over 72 million homes. When we look at the advantages and disadvantages of nuclear energy, the 92% average capacity is a figure that stands out. It is one of the most efficient resources we currently use.
Blog Post Author Credentials
Louise Gaille is the author of this post. She received her B.A. in Economics from the University of Washington. In addition to being a seasoned writer, Louise has almost a decade of experience in Banking and Finance. If you have any suggestions on how to make this post better, then go here to contact our team.