What is the first thing that pops into your head when you hear the word “Nuclear Energy”?

Perhaps it may be unfortunate events such as an image of a powerful bombing, a nuclear holocaust, or a nuclear meltdown like Chernobyl.  If this is your first thought about nuclear energy, then you are in for a big surprise with our content.  However, there are many pros and cons of nuclear energy.

Many might view nuclear energy as a potential threat. While we would not fully disagree with this, nuclear energy does have a lot of potentials to supply the required energy to the world. It is one of the environment-friendly sources of energy. However, we cannot look past the excessive capital cost and difficulty in the disposal of its radioactive waste.

Here, we will provide you comprehensive information on the pros and cons of nuclear energy.

Table of Contents

What is Nuclear Energy?

Nuclear energy is derived from the reaction known as the fission or fusion of atoms. In nuclear power plants, the main process used is fission. Here, the atom is split to create energy. Uranium atoms are mostly used for the fission process. The Uranium atom is hit by a neutron to release heat and radiation. More neutrons are released in the splitting process thus colliding with other Uranium atoms. Thus, this process repeats over and over again.

Thus, the heat energy produced during this reaction in a nuclear power plant is known as nuclear energy. The heat is generally released as steam which is used in a steam turbine to generate electricity. If you are more curious about how exactly nuclear fusion power plant work, this is the must article for you to study. Currently, nuclear energy accounts for almost 20% of total energy generation in the US.

General Misconceptions About Nuclear Energy

The term “Nuclear” sets people’s minds into thinking something deadly or havoc. Here are the common misconceptions about nuclear energy and the facts behind those assumptions:

Radioactive Waste

Many films and TV shows portray the radioactive waste as a green glowing sludge that slips into the reservoir resulting in mutation and destruction. This has gotten people to believe that workers in the power plant are irresponsible and their negligence can lead to mass destruction.

However, the truth is that nuclear waste is handled with rigorous safety guidelines and regulations. In the US, the used fuel is handled with strict precautions and deposited in the Yucca Mountain, Nevada since 1987. Over 7,000 shipments have been made since and there has been no case of leaks of the radioactive waste or personal injury.

According to the Nuclear Energy Institute, there have been no radiation-related health effects.

Nuclear Meltdowns

After the well-publicized tragedies like Chernobyl and Fukushima, it is quite common for the general public to have a fear of nuclear meltdowns again in the future. However, these incidents are exceedingly rare.

The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has created new safety policies that would guide the power plants with more safety measures and protect the facilities in the events of such accidents. It is a rule that the power plants must ensure the reactor core and spent fuel cool is cool. They also have to build thick concrete containment buildings to surround each reactor. These steps will ensure maximum safety and precaution from any unfortunate events of nuclear meltdowns.

Nuclear energy is considered heavily governed by the federal government and is considered one of the safest working environments in the US.

Pros of Nuclear Energy

1. Low Pollution

Nuclear Energy is one of the safest and environment-friendly sources of energy. As compared to other forms of energy, nuclear energy generates fewer greenhouse gases such as methane and carbon dioxide. Thus, it is safe to say that nuclear energy causes less pollution and is not far behind solar or wind energy when it comes to emission.

2. Low Operating Cost

Although the initial cost of establishing a nuclear power plant is high, the operating cost is very low and this process generates electricity at a cheaper cost. This makes electricity more affordable and accessible to many people. The average life of a nuclear reactor is anywhere between 40 to 60 years. Moreover, the cost of Uranium is also low. All these variables make the cost of power much lower.

3. Reliable

Other alternative energies such as solar and wind energy are fully dependent on weather conditions. This can lead to uneven electricity production. Nuclear energy, on the other hand, has no such restrictions. It is estimated that the US has enough Uranium supply to last over another 70 to 80 years.

Nuclear reaction delivers consistent energy supply and will last much longer than fossil fuels of the same capacity.

4. Powerful Energy Source

According to the Office of Nuclear Energy, nuclear power plants delivered under 805 billion KW hours of electricity in 2017 in the US. This energy is enough to power over 73 million households. Since the 1990s, nuclear power plants have supplied 20% of electricity demand in the US.

These stats show that nuclear energy is much powerful and has a lot more potential than any other source of energy in the present context.

Cons of Nuclear Energy

1. Huge Capital Cost

Building a nuclear power plant along with all the pieces of equipment and technology can be extremely expensive. There are many factors to consider before mining nuclear energy such as safety measures, waste disposal/storage procedures, and security. All these further hike the investment costs.

2. Possibility of Accidents

Although we have mentioned that nuclear meltdowns are extremely rare, it is not a 100% guarantee that accidents cannot occur. The US government takes extreme safety measures and caution to prevent any unfortunate incidents. The government enforces strict rules and guidelines to ensure maximum safety.

However, there is always a possibility of accidents. Under extreme conditions, who is to say the events of Chornobyl and Fukushima will not repeat?

3. The Burden of Radioactive Waste

Nuclear wastes are extremely toxic and harmful to anything and anyone that comes to its contact. The disposal of such waste is an intense burden. It involves extreme precaution, safety measures, and abiding by the thorough process. The US government disposes such waste at Yucca Mountain, Nevada. However, the process takes time, funding, highly-skilled technical teams.

4. Finite Uranium

The US reserves Uranium to last for another eight decades. Although the Uranium is abundant at present, it is still finite. If more power plants are built, the Uranium amount is sure to dwindle down. That is when we must mine Uranium, which is an expensive process. Moreover, it contaminates the environment and brings health issues.

5. Security Threat

There is no denying that nuclear energy is extremely powerful. However, it also poses a threat to national security if fallen into the wrong hands. Terrorists might use the Uranium to power nuclear weapons, which can be devastating to human lives. For this reason, security around nuclear plants and equipment is important

Is Nuclear Energy A Renewable Energy?

The answer is ‘NO’. Nuclear energy depends on Uranium as its core fuel. Although Uranium produces a great amount of energy, its amount is finite. This is why nuclear energy is not a renewable energy source.

But having said so, there are other alternatives we can use besides Uranium to fuel the nuclear reactor. One example of such alternatives is Plutonium that is formed as a by-product of chain reactions. Moreover, if we can control the fusion reaction similar to the one that goes on in the Sun, we can have access to almost unlimited energy.

Final Thoughts

There are fears and concerns regarding nuclear wastes and meltdowns that threaten human lives and the environment. However, bearing appropriate safety measures and guidelines, such events can be prevented. Nuclear energy is a modern and carbon-neutral solution to the escalating demand for electricity in the world. If harnessed and controlled properly, nuclear energy can become safer and efficient than it ever was before.

(Last Updated on October 8, 2022 by Sadrish Dabadi)

Nina Howell is a Rewenable Energy researcher and consultant based out of Houston, Texas Area. She earned her Master's Degree in Energy and Earth Resources from Austin Jackson School of Geosciences in 2010, and a Bachelor's Degree in Environmental Science from State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry in 2008. Nina has been working in the energy sector since 2011. She worked as an Energy Supply Analyst from 2011 to 2017 in Bounce Energy and then as a Research and Energy Consultant at GE Renewable Energy from March 2017 to February 2020 . Nina is a mom of 2 beautiful children who are joy to her life. She strongly believes in eco-friendly living and is vocal about renewable energy, environmental issues, water crisis, and sustainable living.