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Pros and Cons of Nuclear Energy (and How it Works)

“Nuclear Energy”. What comes to your mind when you hear those words? For most of us, those words trigger negative memories and thoughts. However, there are many interesting pros and cons of nuclear energy and I am going to explain them in this article!

What you most probably don’t know is that nuclear energy is ranked among the most environmentally friendly types of energy globally. And this is just one of the numerous advantages associated with nuclear energy.

In this article, I will discuss in detail what this type of energy entails, and the main pros and cons of nuclear energy. This will help you gain a better understanding of this energy source, as well as the impact it could have on our future. So let’s dive in!

What Is Nuclear Energy and how Does it work?

Nuclear energy in modern power plants is created when an atom splits, becoming two separate, lighter atoms. The energy is released in the form of heat and it is then used to run steam turbines connected to alternators to produce electricity.

The process that generates all of this energy is called nuclear fission. During the nuclear reaction a high amount of energy is released by a chain reaction that converts a portion of mass into energy according to Albert Einstein‘s popular mass-energy equivalence:

e = mc²

Where “e” is the released energy, “m” is the mass that gets converted into energy, and “c” is a constant equal to the speed of light (about 300’000 km per second).

These reactions are produced in nuclear reactors: safe and controlled environments created specifically for nuclear power plants.

Uranium is the primary fuel used to facilitate the chain reaction and production of nuclear energy. This is because Uranium is one of the atoms with the largest nucleus and this facilitates the nuclear reaction.

Pros and cons of nuclear energy: summary

Here’s a summary of the pros and cons of nuclear energy:

PROSCONS
Creates high-paying jobs 💰Radioactive waste disposal ☢
Low cost of operation 🔽Non-renewable fuel 🛢
Small Land Footprint 🟢High upfront cost 💸
Low Pollution and emissions 🌎Security threat 💣
Reliable 👍Potentially catastrophic accidents ⚠
High Energy Density 🔼Negative Impact on the Environment 🌳
Stable Base Load ↕
Supports National Security 🛡
Pros and Cons of Nuclear Energy

Nuclear energy is considered an environmentally friendly source of energy. After all, compared with other traditional sources of energy, such as coal power plants, nuclear energy produces fewer harmful gas emissions to the environment. Even if this form of energy also leads to the disposal of radioactive waste and the potential exposure of people, wildlife, and the environment to harmful radiation.

Therefore, if we want to protect the environment and ensure it remains sustainable, we need to learn about both pros and cons of nuclear energy. Understanding advantages and disadvantages can give us a better idea of what nuclear energy is capable of.

In turn, we will be able to decide if the resource is worth pursuing for the future energy needs of the world or not.

Now let’s look more in detail into the advantages and disadvantages of nuclear energy!

Pros of Nuclear Energy

Nuclear energy offers numerous benefits that make it a great option to consider for the future of our energy and electricity needs. Consider these 8 main advantages provided by nuclear energy:

  1. Creates high-paying jobs
  2. Low cost of operation
  3. Small Land Footprint
  4. Low Pollution and emissions
  5. Reliable
  6. High Energy Density
  7. Stable Base Load
  8. Supports National Security

1. Creates high paying jobs

Nuclear energy can provide significant economic benefits. First of all, it creates numerous job opportunities for people, especially when new power plants are established.

According to the Nationwide Electrical Industries (NEI), a newly established power plant creates up to 700 permanent jobs. And since most nuclear facilities have a minimum of 2 nuclear plants, this means at least 1400 jobs are created per facility.

Also, it is estimated that the nuclear sector employs about half a million people in the United States alone. Moreover, those jobs tend to have 30% higher salaries compared to the average.

On the other hand, only 50 jobs are created for natural gas plants and only 90 jobs are created for coal plants. This is much lower than the 1400 jobs created by nuclear plant facilities, and other thousands of job opportunities that are created during the construction of the nuclear plants.

More so, nuclear power plants generate an indirect business turnover of about $500 million every year thanks to goods and services related to their operation. This improves also the overall economy of the country.

This means that nuclear energy contributes to improving economic sustainability by supporting economic development and the creation of good jobs.

2. Low Cost of Operation

Nuclear energy is a very cost-effective energy solution. Uranium is the main source of fuel used for the production of nuclear energy and has a relatively low cost.

Besides, only a little uranium is required to generate massive nuclear power energy. Hence, the costs associated with producing electricity from nuclear energy are much lower than those used to produce energy from oil, gas, or coal.

Also, nuclear reactors have a long lifetime, lasting for 40 years. In fact, if these are well-maintained, they can last for up to 60 years. Considering all these factors, we can conclude that the cost of producing nuclear energy and running power plants will remain very competitive even if uranium costs go higher.

3. Small Land Footprint

When compared with solar and wind power production facilities, nuclear energy power plants take up much less physical space. For example, a nuclear energy facility producing 1 Gw of electricity would take up about one square mile of land.

On the other hand, despite the benefits of solar energy, a large-scale solar plant that produces the same amount of energy would take up 75 times more of the land area used by the nuclear facility.

While a wind farm would take up 360 times more land. The large space taken up by these renewable sources of energy would also mean more machines; 3.125 million solar panels and 431 wind turbines, as per the Department of Energy. 

The more machines are used to produce energy, the more harmful emissions are released into the environment to produce them. Therefore, by taking up a smaller land footprint, nuclear power plants significantly reduce the amount of carbon dioxide and greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere.

4. Low Pollution and emissions

The production process for traditional fossil fuels releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, leading to air pollution and increased global warming. On the contrary, nuclear energy power plants do not generate carbon dioxide, methane or other greenhouse emissions that could have a negative impact on the environment. 

The use of nuclear energy also prevents the release of over 460 million metric tons of carbon dioxide every year. This is similar to removing 100 million vehicles off the road; which is a great step since the transportation field is one of the largest causes of carbon pollution in the environment.

Well, this is not to say that the production of nuclear energy does not cause any pollution at all. The processes of mining uranium, refining, and preparing it uses energy and also release nuclear waste, which can cause serious environmental issues.

However, compared with fossil fuels and even most renewable sources of energy, nuclear energy releases lower amounts of emissions. 

For instance, according to the World Nuclear Association, nuclear power plants release approximately 12g of carbon dioxide per kWh (kilowatt-hour) of energy produced. On the other hand, wind power has average CO2 emissions of 12g per kWh, solar (photovoltaic) produces 41g per kWh, and coal produces 820g per kWh.

Therefore, despite the fact that nuclear energy production has some negative impacts on the environment, it can be considered an environmental-friendly source of energy.

5. Reliable

Some sources of energy, such as wind and solar power, are highly dependent on weather conditions.

For example, unless the wind is blowing, it will be impossible to harness wind energy to produce electricity. Similarly, if the weather is cloudy, solar energy cannot be generated. 

On the other hand, nuclear energy is not dependent on any climatic conditions or other constraints. And since nuclear power plants are not affected by any external weather conditions, they create a reliable and predictable energy output.

For example, a high-quality, well-functioned nuclear power plant can continuously produce nuclear energy for one year or more. Such a power plant would in turn bring a good return on investments since there are no delays or pauses in the production of energy.

Also, note that there is enough uranium on Earth to produce energy for the next about 90 years. And while 90 years may not seem like a long time, it is more time than fossil fuels are expected to last.

Besides, researchers are exploring other sources of energy (such as nuclear fusion) to be used in nuclear power plants. This, adding to the fact that nuclear power plants have round-the-clock stability, makes nuclear energy an ideal and reliable source of energy.

According to the US Department of Energy (DOE), Nuclear power is so reliable that it has the highest capacity factor (ie. they are almost never down for maintenance or any other reason compared to other power plants). This means that replacing a 1 GW nuclear power plant would call for either 2 GW of coal or 3-4 GW of other renewable sources of energy.

Indeed, nuclear energy is a much more reliable source of electricity than coal, fossil fuel, and gas.

6. High Energy Density

Nuclear fission produces energy many times more efficiently than fossil fuels. With just a small amount of Uranium, it is possible to generate a massive amount of energy. This gives nuclear a higher energy density than most other sources.

This contributes to making it a very cost-effective source of energy. Furthermore, less fuel being used in the production process means less nuclear waste released into the environment, which in turn improves environmental sustainability.

7. Stable Base Load

Did you know that approximately 20% of all electricity produced in the U.S comes from nuclear energy? The electricity is usually generated from 98 power plants located in 30 different states in the country.

These nuclear power plants provide a stable source of power that can be combined well with other different types of renewable energy.

For example, nuclear power can be used in conjunction with wind power. When there is wind blowing, the nuclear power plants can be adjusted such that the energy output is lower. After all, wind turbines produce such a great amount of power when the wind blows.

However, when there is less wind and a greater need for energy, the nuclear plants can be adjusted to generate a higher energy output that compensates for the less wind.

8. Supports National Security

Did you know that a strong nuclear sector is crucial for the energy diplomacy and national security of the US? To ensure that all nuclear technologies are used safely and peacefully, the United States should uphold good leadership in this arena. 

Nuclear energy brings different countries together, as these work hand-in-hand to build better relationships and create new opportunities for using nuclear technologies.

More so, nuclear energy supports national defense and promotes geopolitical leadership among countries abroad. It is no wonder, then, that most security experts globally refer to nuclear energy as the “cornerstone of national security.”

Cons of Nuclear Energy

When considering nuclear energy as a potential source of eco-friendly energy for the future, you also need to keep in mind the disadvantages associated with it.

Here are 6 main cons of nuclear energy:

  1. Radioactive waste disposal
  2. Non-renewable fuel
  3. High upfront cost
  4. Security threat
  5. Potentially catastrophic accidents
  6. Negative Impact on the Environment

1. Radioactive Waste Disposal

While the production process of nuclear energy does not release any emissions, it produces nuclear (radioactive) waste which may be harmful to the environment if not handled correctly.

Normally, we are exposed to radioactivity from radon in the air or from cosmic rays. However, the radioactivity is usually in small quantities, such that it does not cause any harm.

On the contrary, radioactive waste generated by nuclear power plants is usually in high quantities, making it incredibly dangerous.

Generally, just one power plant generates 20 metric tons of nuclear waste; fuel that releases a lot of radioactive waste into the environment. And taking into account all the nuclear plants established on Earth, we can approximate that these create over 2,000 metric tons of exhausted nuclear fuel every year!

The biggest challenge that most nuclear power plants face is the storage of nuclear waste. Since radioactive waste cannot be destroyed, the only option left for nuclear energy facilities is to keep the waste sealed tightly in containers. Those are then stored underground to prevent them from contaminating the environment.

However, more research is underway for finding a better way to store and dispose of radioactive waste from nuclear plants.

2. Non-renewable fuel

To produce nuclear energy, we need uranium ore as a source of fuel. And unlike fossil fuels, solar, wind, and other renewable sources of energy that are easily available, uranium is a non-renewable resource.

Moreover, Uranium is available only in a few countries, making it a scarce product. 

The more we use uranium to produce nuclear power, the more we deplete this scarce resource.

In turn, this will lead to higher costs of extraction, as well as more environmental pollution from the processing and mining processes.

There is also the long-term risk that uranium will eventually run out completely. When this happens, we may not have any more fuel to run any future nuclear power plants.

To ensure the future of nuclear power plants, researchers are trying to build new breeder reactors and create nuclear fusion before the supply of uranium runs out.

If this succeeds, we will be able to create enough energy for all of our needs, as well as reduce the overall amount of nuclear waste produced by this sector.

3. High Upfront Cost

Nuclear power plants are relatively cheap to run and manage. However, building these plants from scratch is very expensive, and the construction costs keeps rising every year.

For example, from 2002 to 2008, the costs for building a power plant rose from 2-4 billion dollars to 9 billion dollars. 

Besides being too expensive to build, all nuclear power plants also have to set aside funds to manage all the waste they produce.

For example, nuclear plant facilities are required to allow the radioactive waste to be kept a considerable amount of time to cool. The waste must also be observed and managed to prevent any possible pollution to the environment. 

Also, since they are complex devices, nuclear reactors are usually built with several levels of safety around them. All these procedures and safety measures usually cost billions of dollars, increasing the upfront costs of nuclear power plants.

4. Security Threat

Nuclear energy generates such a great amount of power, making it a target for terrorists.

It’s because of this that high security and numerous safety measures are enforced in and around all nuclear power plants.

5. Potentially Catastrophic accidents

Sometimes, the heat generated by nuclear power plants may exceed the amount being transferred out by their enormous cooling systems. When this happens, the systems may exceed their melting point, increasing the risk of hot radioactive vapor escaping.

When radioactive vapor escapes, it causes the nuclear power plants to melt down and combust. 

Also, nuclear meltdowns may release radioactive waste into the atmosphere, causing great environmental pollution.

In the worst-case scenario, the radioactive materials released into the environment may have devastating effects on the local inhabitants, posing serious health issues to the people and even risking their lives.

However, this is usually a rare experience, considering that nuclear power plants are built with several safety measures to prevent this from happening.

A good example of how catastrophic nuclear accidents can be is the Chornobyl power plant disaster in Ukraine. While the exact number of people who died in the Chornobyl incident has never been confirmed, it is estimated that at least 10,000 people died from the radiation effects in the region.

Another power plant in Fukushima, Japan, led to serious environmental damage; the harmful effects of the meltdown can still be seen even today.

6. Negative Impact on the Environment

To access uranium used to fuel nuclear energy production, open pit mining is usually necessary. And while this type of mining is generally safe for the miners, it usually leads to deforestation, destruction of natural habitat, soil pollution, and air pollution.

At times, underground mining is done, exposing miners to harmful radiation and also leading to the release of radioactive waste into the atmosphere.

But one of the greatest environmental hazards from nuclear plants comes from the transportation of nuclear fuel. Transporting the fuel to and especially from the nuclear power plants can be dangerous.

In addition, when the fuel has been used, it cannot be taken to a normal landfill since it releases harmful radioations.

Conclusion

We all look forward to attaining sustainable development and live in a kind of world where the needs of the present are well met, without compromising on the ability to meet the needs of the future.

Yet, for us to achieve such true sustainability on all of its three pillars (the 3 P’s or 3 Es of sustainable development), we need to keep in check the things that have long-term effects now and for the future; and one such major aspect is nuclear energy.

The pros and cons of nuclear energy are wide-ranging, but its greatest advantage is that it is one of the most environmentally friendly sources of energy in the world. It also has low operation costs, takes up a small land footprint, and has proved to be a very reliable source of energy. Even if building nuclear power plants is very expensive and the transportation of nuclear fuel causes tremendous environmental hazards. 

If we are to make the best decision on the future of nuclear energy, it is crucial that we consider these advantages and disadvantages of nuclear energy and determine if the production of nuclear energy is worth pursuing in the long run.

In my opinion, the pros outweigh the cons of nuclear energy, so while technology advances toward cleaner nuclear reactions (fusion), we should keep a well-diversified portfolio. This means using as much as possible all types of renewable energies (solar, wind, biogas, and hydropower with its pros and cons), while also using nuclear energy and keeping a smaller portion of fossil fuels.

This would give us enough time to develop more efficient and clean energy sources that can guarantee a sustainable future!