Term: Nuclear Power

Nuclear Power

Nuclear power is a clean and affordable method of producing electricity with more than 800 billion kilowatt hours being produced in 2022 in the United States alone.

Nuclear Power Reactions

Nuclear energy is the energy found within the nucleus of an atom and can be harnessed through two different types of reactions. The first type is known as fission which is a chemical reaction that splits atoms to release the heat energy within the atoms. The heat energy is then used to create steam which turns a turbine to produce electricity. The fuel used in fission is mostly uranium although other sources can include plutonium or thorium. All of today’s nuclear plants use this method. Fission is a second type of reaction where two or more atomic nuclei are made to collide at very high speeds, producing a new type of atomic nucleus. A portion of the fusing nuclei is converted into protons and produces usable energy. There is substantial scientific evidence that this process can be utilized on a large scale but it has not been practicably demonstrated thus far.

Nuclear Reactors

Most nuclear power plants are thermal reactors that use mostly uranium in a once-through fuel cycle. When the percentage of neutrons that absorb atoms becomes so large that the chemical chain reaction is diminished, the fuel is removed from the reactor. The fuel is then sent to on-site spent fuel pools to be cooled. This process can take several years but once the fuel is cooled it is transported to long-term storage facilities. This fuel remains highly radioactive for hundreds of thousands of years and poses significant health risks to humans and threatens the environment. Because of the radioactive risks the focus has been on developing new, more effective technologies.

New Technologies

Although none of the following reactors are in use today, they do represent the most current advances in nuclear reactors. 

High Temperature Gas Reactors: High temperature gas reactors are designed to support the cogeneration of electricity and hydrogen. This type of reactor enhances safety and limits risks commonly associated with nuclear meltdowns. The electricity from this type of reactor is generated by either helium gas turbines or by a conventional steam generator. 

Sodium-Cooled Fast Reactors: Unlike High temperature gas reactors this type operates at low temperatures and at low pressures. Because it is a closed fuel cycle, this reactor utilizes radioactive resources more effectively and efficiently. The closed system also reduces radioactive exposure and increases safety through passive heat distribution. Another advantage to sodium-cooled fast reactors is they can use the technologies designed for former reactors thus reducing costs associated with research and development.

Molten Salt Reactors: These reactors use super heated salt as a coolant which is then utilized in a heat exchange to generate electricity with a turbine. These reactors have the added advantage of using thorium which helps reduce waste. Although introduced to the market almost 50 years ago, these reactors are not ready for widespread use.

Pros of Nuclear Power

Although accounting for only 115% of the global electricity generation, nuclear energy through the process of fission produces 1 million times more electricity per atom than is generated from fossil fuels. The electricity produced can easily be put onto the electric grid with few infrastructure changes. Nuclear power, although it has costly up-front costs, can produce large amounts of energy with low operating costs. Nuclear power also is advantageous because it does not emit destructive greenhouse gasses and thus does not affect climate change.

Cons of Nuclear Power

Nuclear power has the major disadvantage of producing radioactive waste products such as uranium mill taggings and used reactor fuel. It also has the inherent danger of creating nuclear meltdown accidents caused by chemical reactions going awry and fuel temperatures increasing to catastrophic levels. Four major meltdowns that have occurred are Fukushima in 2011, Chernobyl in 1986, Three Mile Island in 1979, and SL-1 occurring in 1961. 

Another disadvantage is nuclear power plants are prime targets for terrorist attacks.

 

Although nuclear power is a clean and efficient way to produce electricity, there are many potential negative ramifications. Further research and development is needed to ensure the safety of nuclear sites, the environment, and the people’s well-being.

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