The last time a nuclear power plant was constructed in the United States was the Watts Bar plant in Tennessee, which was started in 1973 and was completed in 1990. The River Bend plant was built in 1977 and went online in 1986. Recent plans have indicated nuclear power plants may be constructed once again in the near future. This means the nuclear energy pros and cons are more important than ever before to consider.
Nuclear energy is often considered to be clean, stable, and reliable. When something bad happens, however, the results can be catastrophic. Events in Chernobyl and Japan involving radiation from nuclear energy have had long-lasting effects.
What Are the Pros of Nuclear Energy?
1. The costs of nuclear energy are relatively low.
Generating electricity in a nuclear power plant is cost-competitive to fossil fuels and renewable environmentally-friendly resources. This is despite the fact that the initial construction costs are often several billion dollars and there are ongoing enrichment and waste disposal issues that must be managed. Because it is such an affordable energy resource, it allows most people to have access to the power they need for the modern life.
2. It provides a stable base load of energy.
In the United States, more than 800 TWh of electricity is generated every year because of nuclear energy. This accounts for about 20% of the electricity that is consumed on an annual basis by US-based consumers. Nuclear energy can be produced around the clock and the amount of energy being produced can be raised or lowered based on local consumption levels. When demands are high, the reactors can be cranked up to produce more power very easily.
3. Nuclear energy produces relatively low levels of pollution.
Compared to fossil fuels, nuclear energy produces very few emissions that can affect the atmosphere. There are certainly dangers that must be managed with this power resource, but for the actual production process, nuclear energy is only slightly behind solar and wind energy when it comes to the greenhouse gases that are produced.
4. There are high levels of fuel availability.
Under current consumption levels, it is estimated that the US (and other countries that use nuclear power) have about 80 years of fuel remaining. This comes from existing uranium resources, so more uranium could be found and refined in the future. Many countries are also looking at the possibility of using another type of fuel, called thorium, to power the nuclear energy facilities that are already in place. Thorium is more environmentally friendly than uranium, which adds another potential benefit to this industry.
5. It is a high energy density resource.
The amount of energy that is obtained through nuclear fission is many times greater than the amount of energy that is released through the combustion of fossil fuels. Nuclear fission is 10 million times greater than fossil fuels in this area. This means the amount of fuel that is required to produce the energy we need through nuclear energy is much smaller than what we would need when using fossil fuels.
6. It is a commodity that works with our existing distribution networks.
Nuclear energy works with our current power grid. It is a technology that is ready to be distributed to the market, even if a new nuclear facility happens to go online. This is the primary advantage that nuclear has over many renewable resources. It can be hooked into the network immediately, can be built virtually anywhere, and will provide a known resource.
7. Nuclear energy can support our greatest power needs.
Because nuclear energy is able to produce a large amount of power in a short amount of time, it can meet the heavy industrial and commercial power needs that we have today. Other power generation technologies offer a lower power density, which means they may only be able to meet local residential and light industrial needs at best.
8. Waste recycling can reduce our current costs immediately.
Nuclear waste recycling allows for the waste products from a reactor to be treated and then fed into another reactor to provide it with fuel. According to the World Nuclear Association, plutonium is recovered from used fuel and the recycled into MOX fuel. This allows us to be able to gain up to 30% more energy from current uranium or thorium fuels than if only the initial refinement process was used.
9. Nuclear energy is surprisingly safe.
Despite the levels of radiation that are created through the uranium enrichment process or the waste materials that are created, nuclear power plants are incredibly safe. Although there have been accidents in the past that have caused immense and long-term damage, not a single accident can be attributed to a malfunction in the system. Natural disasters and human error have be the causes of nuclear energy disasters.
10. The amount of radiation exposure which occurs to the average person is minimal.
According to estimates from the US Environmental Protection Agency, the radiation that nuclear power reactors produce accounts for .01% of the average total radiation exposure that is received over a lifetime. In comparison, 80% of our exposure to radiation comes from naturally-occurring sources. The average person received more radiation from indoor radon exposure than from nuclear energy.
11. It is safer to work at a nuclear power plant in the US than in other careers.
The National Research Council reports that the nuclear power plants in the US effectively protect people from radiation, despite the fact they generate power on a 24/7 basis. They are even safe for the workers who keep the facility operational. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics show that it is more dangerous to work at a McDonald’s or a Safeway store than it is to work at a nuclear energy facility.
12. Nuclear energy provides high levels of consistent.
Assuming that a nuclear power plant is operating at its peak efficiency, it has the potential for running for nearly 2 years without interruption. This means communities are able to reduce the number of power interruptions they experience that are directly associated with the source of power. There are no weather contingencies or supply factors involved either, which means nuclear energy is stable in multiple facets.
13. Nature recovers quickly, even if the unthinkable happens.
Millions are still dealing with the fallout from Chernobyl, but Mother Nature has done an excellent job adapting to what has happened. Researchers are now using Chernobyl as a pseudo nature reserve, placing endangered animals such as Przewalksi horses, into the area. This exclusion zone has also become the home of many types of wildlife, free from the influences of humanity.
14. It is an established technology.
We know that nuclear energy works. We know how to design nuclear power plants, disposal networks, and fuel enrichment processes. If we need to have more energy right away, then we know for a fact that nuclear energy can provide us what we need. There is no need for experimentation or network upgrades to add this energy to our networks. We can build it now and have it up and running with often a simple vote from a city council or state government.
What Are the Cons of Nuclear Energy?
1. Nuclear energy provides an ongoing threat to the environment.
Accidents happen, despite our best intentions. When a reactor melts down, releases nuclear waste, or has radiation escape, then the harmful effects on people and the environment can last for decades. Even though Chernobyl was evacuated immediately and casualties were minimal initially, it is estimated that up to 30,000 people were killed because of the side effects of radiation in plants, animals, and foods. Another 2.5 million people are believed to be suffering from health issues that can be directly attributed to the nuclear power plant.
2. Nuclear energy produces a different kind of emission that can be harmful.
Although the amount of greenhouse gases that are created by nuclear energy are fairly minimal, there is a different kind of threat that exists. The waste products that are produced by this type of energy increases the risks of being exposed to radiation. Radioactive waste that comes from nuclear energy has an estimated half-life of 30 years in many instances. Some isotopes, such as Plutonium-239, have a half-life that is estimated to be 24,000 years. In some ways, that makes nuclear energy more dangerous than fossil fuel power.
3. Nuclear energy is an infrastructure target.
We live in a world where people attack innocents for political or religious purposes without any regard to the consequences of their actions. For those who are looking to maximize the amount of damage that could be caused to a large population of people, nuclear energy facilities become a natural infrastructure target. This targeted can be physical or digital in nature, with both having potential long-term consequences occurring if there isn’t enough security in place.
4. The fuel for nuclear energy is still a finite resource.
Eventually the uranium will disappear. The thorium that may be used as its replacement will also eventually disappear. It may take several generations for this to occur, especially if the fuel is properly managed, but it will occur one day because these fuels are a finite resource. This means nuclear energy is really a temporary solution to our modern power needs.
5. Waivers are often required for communities to use nuclear energy.
Because of the risks that are involved in nuclear energy, many companies that use this technology require the signing of waivers in order for it to be used. These waivers are intended to limit the liabilities of those involved in case an accident should occur. If something unforeseen should happen, it is the government that would often be stuck with the final cleanup and restoration costs, which means companies shift the responsibility from themselves to the taxpayer.
6. Nuclear energy requires a large infrastructure.
Renewable energy resources and even coal-fired power are more efficient than nuclear energy when it comes to the amount of infrastructure that is required to support them. Nuclear energy is a large-scale operation, which means it requires high levels of investment and coordination in order for it to reach its full potential. This coordination can increase the costs of nuclear energy to a point where it may not be price-competitive for some communities.
7. We don’t have access to known uranium deposits.
Most of the known uranium deposits that have been identified globally lie under lands that are controlled by indigenous populations. These tribes and groups of people don’t generally support the uranium refinement process that makes nuclear energy possible. Without their support, it is difficult to obtain the element needed to create power in the first place. Should uranium and thorium stores run low, industrialized nations may consider taking the uranium by force instead of respecting local rights and customs.
8. Long-term storage is required for high-level contaminants.
In the United States, there are no operating long-term waste storage sites that support the nuclear energy industry. There are certain sites that do store this waste, but do so with the support of the local community and the state government. If the states back out of an agreement to store the waste, the national government has very little they can do to change their minds.
9. Nuclear waste can be turned into weapons.
Nuclear energy provides a number of potential threats on numerous levels. Even the waste products from a nuclear power plant can be turned into a weapon that has a devastating potential. Yet for a country like the US, which must ship these wastes out to the international community because of a lack of storage, this threat is ever-present. Less secure countries with terrorism cells present could create the foundation needed to unleash nuclear terrorism on the world.
10. The radiation from nuclear energy is a known carcinogen.
Not only does the radiation produced in the creation of nuclear energy cause cancer, but it is known to carry a number of adverse side effects which are detrimental to a person’s health. Radiation can cause genetic defects in the children who have parents who were exposed to radiation. Developmental disabilities are also known to occur. According to Professor Emeritus Jeffery Patterson at the UW School of Medicine and Public Health, there is no safe dose of radiation.
11. Uranium is an unstable material.
We use uranium in nuclear energy because it is an element that is naturally unstable. This also means that advanced precautions must be taking during the entire production chain, from mining to refinement. The instability of uranium can have a dramatic impact on the health of those who mine it and transport it for refinement or use. The precautions taken to reduce the risks that uranium produces can make it difficult to access or afford the raw materials for some communities.
12. Nuclear waste can contaminate groundwater supplies.
Recycling and disposal efforts can eliminate a lot of the harmful radioactivity from nuclear waste, assuming it is appropriately handled and processed. That waste, even if it doesn’t contain radioactive elements, can still be highly dangerous to the surrounding environment. Heavy metals and other pollutants can alter local groundwater tables, damaging the local ecosystem in unpredictable ways.
These nuclear energy pros and cons show that there are several benefits that can be obtained when the proper safety precautions are taken for this resource. The issue that many have is that if those precautions are not taken, the consequences of using nuclear energy can be devastating for a long period of time.