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What Are the Benefits of Nuclear Power?

One kilogram of uranium can provide energy equal to at least 200 barrels of oil.
Nuclear waste disposal is costly, but nuclear power is still relatively inexpensive.
Nuclear power plants produce fewer pollutants than traditional power plants.
While generally safe when operated in accordance with guidelines, nuclear power plants are at risk for catastrophic disasters, such as the accident that occurred at Chernobyl in 1986.
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  • Originally Written By: Michael Anissimov
  • Revised By: Alan Rankin
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 21 October 2014
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Nuclear power has many benefits over other energy sources, particularly older methods such as oil, coal, and hydroelectricity. It is more efficient than these traditional sources of energy, and the raw materials needed to produce it occur commonly throughout the natural world. Additionally, nuclear power plants are relatively cheap to run, and safety measures have improved substantially since the accidents of the 20th century. Although there are some well-known risks to the use of nuclear energy, most are generally comparable to the risks of other types of power generation.

History

In the early 20th century, scientists discovered how to create energy through the use of highly radioactive elements such as uranium. Famously, this led to the atomic weapons that ended World War II, resulting in a decades-long pattern of nuclear proliferation in countries around the world. At the same time, however, a different process was discovered that could use controlled, non-explosive nuclear reactions to generate cheap electricity. By the 1960s, nations including England, the U.S., and even Japan were constructing nuclear power plants called reactors.

Efficiency and Availability

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A small amount of nuclear material can produce a lot of energy; a single kilogram (2.2 pounds) of uranium, for example, can produce at least as much energy as 200 barrels (8,400 gallons or 31.8 m3) of oil or 20,000 kg (44,092 pounds) of coal. Uranium, which is the element used to generate nuclear power, is as common as tin in nature, although it needs to be in a high enough concentration to make worth extracting it commercially. The ore must be mined and treated to separate it from the surrounding rocks, then processed to turn it into uranium dioxide.

Because uranium is so common, it is not subject to the price fluctuations that are standard in the fossil fuel market. Oil, for example, is only found in certain places in the world and production levels can significantly affect the price.

Clean Energy

Nuclear energy is considered "clean," in that the amount of carbon and airborne pollutants it produces is very small when compared to traditional power plants. While the plants do produce nuclear waste, the ratio of power generated to waste created is far greater than that of fossil-fuel facilities. Nuclear power plants do require a large amount of water, however, which can affect the surrounding environment. Once used, this water is often contaminated with salts and heavy metals, but this is also true of water used by other types of power plants.

Building and Operating Costs

Uranium is relatively inexpensive, although the cost of processing it and disposing of the waste after it has been used do add to the costs. This means that nuclear power plants are pretty cheap to operate. They are expensive to build, however, because of the special materials and safety features that are required.

Conversely, plants that use fossil fuels such as natural gas, oil, or coal are easier to establish, and their higher fuel costs are often offset by income from power production. The nature of investment capital means that these short-term profits usually have greater appeal to investors than the longer-term returns from nuclear power. This dynamic may change if fossil-fuel prices continue to rise dramatically in the 21st century, however.

Safety Concerns

Although nuclear energy is considered safe when plants are built and run following very strict guidelines, the potential for catastrophic disaster means that there is a great deal of fear concerning their safety. High-profile accidents such as Russia's 1986 Chernobyl disaster or Japan's Fukushima meltdown in 2011 have eroded public faith. While these are legitimate concerns, it is helpful to place them in the context of other power generation methods. The pollution from fossil fuels, for example, is estimated to kill over 10,000 people in the United States per year, mainly due to respiratory ailments. Fatal incidents at nuclear plants are relatively rare by comparison; the infamous partial meltdown at Pennsylvania's Three Mile Island in 1979 resulted in no fatalities, and studies have found that people who lived in the area had no long-term health problems related to the accident.

Other concerns surround the highly radioactive waste that is an inevitable by-product of nuclear power. Spent nuclear fuel remains dangerous to human and animal life for thousands of years. A safe method of storing nuclear waste for this time span has yet to be discovered, but it is possible to reprocess it to extract the remaining uranium and plutonium and turn them into usable fuel. Although the high expense of this technique has prevented its implementation in the U.S., it is being done in Europe and Russia. This reused fuel, in turn, produces less radioactive waste.

Future Solutions

The Chernobyl and Fukushima catastrophes have inspired greater safety measures in the design of future nuclear plants. One such design calls for liquid cores that cannot melt down in the event of an accident, since they are effectively pre-melted. As concerns mount over global climate change, the environmental benefits of nuclear power may be reassessed. If higher safety protocols and radioactive waste reprocessing can be established worldwide, nuclear might become preferable to traditional power generation methods.

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Discuss this Article

anon349526
Post 46

The power present in coal, the power future is nuclear. This may seem counter-intuitive, but it's the truth, Most folks (around here, anyway) prefer to think otherwise. Their prejudices won't affect this outcome one iota.

anon319404
Post 45

Nuclear energy doesn't create any CO2 pollution. The only bi-product besides nuclear waste is steam.

anon305274
Post 44

I believe that solar is the future, as I do not know of any deaths from solar, yet I can name several horrible incidences with almost any other energy source, including nuclear.

anon287993
Post 43

@Anon251657: The controversy on the Chernobyl death toll is still open, and for good reason. If the bodies of the highly-irradiated plant workers and firemen have been found, there is no way to obtain the exact number of casualties among the 270,000 people who were subject to radiations and radioactive wind in the Pripyat area and in Belarus. Add to the statistical maze the 600,000 "liquidators" who vanished in the Soviet Union (which legally and literally crumbled three years later) once their work was done, and the impossible quantitative evaluation of deaths by cancer in all Ukraine and Belarus, and the only "common misconception" you have is pretending to know the exact numbers.

For more details on the methods that were used by WHO to count the accident's victims and how they might very well hide thousands of deaths ("we can't say that Chernobyl caused those cancers for sure, so they're out of the equation"), see J-P DUPUY (prof. at Stanford), 2006.

anon263876
Post 42

Nuclear power will soon become a past event.

anon251657
Post 41

A common misconception about Chernobyl is the amount of people that will or have died from Chernobyl. Thousands or millions won't die. The initial explosion resulted in the death of two workers. Twenty-eight of the firemen and emergency clean-up workers died in the first three months after the explosion from acute radiation sickness and one of cardiac arrest.

Studies have shown that the number people who are expected to die from Chernobyl total, including those who have died already, is about 120.

anon234268
Post 38

So uranium-233 is too unstable to use for bombs? Yes, but just because it's impossible to make an organised remote controlled bomb out of it doesn't mean it can't blow up randomly and cause devastating effects on people and the environment.

anon169872
Post 37

Every single kind of energy has it's advantages and disadvantages. There is nothing that is perfect and there will always be fatalities in any forms of energy. Any forms of producing energy will produce some kind of waste that will harm the environment.

anon160665
Post 35

@ANON 149270: i don't have to be new jersey covered in solar panels, for instance what about covering the bright side of the moon, that side is at constant light giving 24/7 access to such a hugely expandable area.

anon149270
Post 34

Well, I thought that 50 people died in the chernobyl accident and I agree with anon21623 and anon25072.

anon132358
Post 33

Nuclear power only creates CO2 emissions from the mining techniques that are used. Nuclear is not poisonous as long as all safety precautions are taken to protect the people who work on the plants. Chernobyl was devastating to the land around the area however did not kill nearly what people are claiming it did.

The Chernobyl accident happened because the technicians where running two tests, one to see how long it would take the reactor to shut down after the turbines had been completely shut down and the second to see what the highest power output could be achieved. To do this they had to shut down all of the automatic safety systems because all of the control rods where lifted out of the reactor core and the primary safety system would have flooded the reactor with water if they had not been shut down. Also the secondary water system also was shut down because when the primary water system does not function the secondary deploys. Both safety systems were shut down. Also the inherent nature of the RBMK reactor that they were using used an outdated technology of limiting the fission reaction.

It uses graphite control rods and when they realized that a meltdown was going to be imminent, the holes that the rods go into had warped, preventing the control rods from being inserted to control the fission. All of this could have been avoided. It was all due to human error, the apparent disregard for all safety systems, and outdated and obsolete facilities.

anon127555
Post 32

Nuclear is the future. Just suck it up. If solar were to replace the energy that nuclear currently produces in the us it would have to cover the entire new jersey. If wind were to, then it would have to cover all of west virginia.

anon126214
Post 31

Nothing is more misleading than pretending nuclear power is carbon neutral. All energy sources must be evaluated on "energy return on investment" (EROI).

PV solar panels need 1 - 3 years to recoup embodied energy, but last decades. Solar thermal, especially passive, has a much higher EROI. The substantial fossil inputs to the nuclear fuel cycle give nuclear a low EROI, and make it a major greenhouse contributor. 2/3 of the energy is waste heat.

Brush up on your second law of Thermodynamics and the Carnot cycle. Just how do "4th generation" nukes get around that? One rather dubious astronomer in the Woodstock NY area has actually suggested that the waste could be rocketed into the sun! Factoring in the energy to rocket millions of tons of waste into the sun, given Earth's 7.1 mile/second escape velocity, and we're talking real fossil fuels!

The Nuclear Information and Resource Service estimates that 1500 - 2000 nukes ($6 - $10 billion a pop) replacing coal plants could theoretically cut carbon 20 percent, but by precluding renewables, would increase carbon. Easily extractable uranium would soon be depleted, forcing mining of lower grade ore, and even higher emissions. If one reactor were built bi-weekly (they currently take 6-10 years) it would take 60 years to build 1500 reactors. So much for a "near term" solution!

The waste would require many huge waste dumps, to be guarded in virtual perpetuity. By contrast, Con-Ed (!) just broke ground on a 20 Megawatt solar farm in N.J. that will be on line by spring.

It is disingenuous to pit nuclear against coal, (or shale gas hydrofracking). All these obsolete technologies are polluting, deadly, greed driven, and limited by the same thermodynamic restraints.

Scientific American (Jan. 2008 cover article) showed our energy economy could become largely solar by 2050. Obstacles are political, not technological. Enough solar hits the U.S. in 1/2 hour to meet our energy needs for a year. Any civilization that squanders savings while discarding income, is doomed to extinction.

Conservation, like the "Passiv Haus" (Habitat for Humanity is building such a house in Northern Vermont), eliminates seven times as much carbon per dollar as nuclear. Wind about twice as much. These are conservative estimates. Just one major accident or terrorist attack would dwarf any nuclear greenhouse mitigation.

The energy elites who helped funded the Republican and teabag election victories are drooling over full on nuclear, "clean" coal, and hydrofracking. If you care about sustainability, just say "know".

anon82456
Post 28

it is extraordinary that people are claiming only 30 people died because of Chernobyl. The fallout contaminated huge areas, across Russia and Europe, and the medium-term and long-term consequences will have killed thousands and certainly caused major health problems and birth disabilities for thousands.

The 'reduction' of risks of nuclear really clouds (i use the word advisably) a decent debate of the issue - it is a bit like saying that 'the management of the nuclear waste is no problem.' There may be arguments for and against, but let's not underestimate what they are.

Moderator's reply: The World Health Organization has revised their estimate since this article was first published; they now report that 50 people have died as a direct result of Chernobyl. It's important to remember, however, that many more people may have shorter life spans as a result of the accident, but, as time passes, these become much more difficult to connect to it directly.

anon81237
Post 26

this was just the most interesting article i have ever read.

anon81002
Post 25

thanks for the great info.

anon80400
Post 24

The data given in this article is not reliable. whilst I support nuclear power, the suggestion that hydroelectric kills 885 per KWh is wildly inaccurate. The international energy authority key statistics for 2007 show a total electrical generation worldwide of 19771 TWh of which 15.6% was hydroelectric. Simple math based on this articles fatality figures give 19771 x 0.156 x 885 = 2729584 deaths in 2007 alone! If we are to argue successfully in favor of nuclear power, we must ensure our data and arguments are factually accurate so as not to expose ourselves to ridicule by anti nuclear protesters.

Moderator's reply: The figure of 885 deaths per TWh is taken from a study that covers the years 1969–1996. This is an average over time. Although the number seems high, the fatality rate works out to about 0.10 per TWh, which is quite low in comparison to other technologies.

anon69424
Post 22

Nuclear power is the future of generating power for us. It is great: no more burning fossil fuels, and releasing loads of CO2 into the atmosphere.

Sure there is the odd spillage every 20 years, but there are more deaths through burning coal alone in three years then there were in the chernobyl accident. Nuclear power is the future.

anon69287
Post 21

Also, the operators at Chernobyl were running experiments, testing the limits of the plant. When they pushed it too far, there was no containment structure to stop the meltdown.

trela
Post 20

but nuclear fission doesn't create any Co2.

anon66390
Post 19

This was really helpful. amazing facts about nuclear power!

anon63585
Post 18

I think that it is very cool to learn about nuclear power plants, because it is the future of the earth.

anon62369
Post 17

This web site was very helpful, thanks.

anon49682
Post 11

Nuclear fuel which when used is stored and sent as waste. Yet we figured out how to reuse this waste and our country did not want to do that, so the French decided to take our idea and have been doing it for years.

anon47771
Post 10

In reality, nuclear fuel produces far less carbon dioxide than the power plants we mainly use at the moment. Nuclear energy is tried, tested and broadly safe. How many incidents can you think of like Chernobyl? Yes it happened, down to human error. Definitely has a future.

anon43103
Post 9

Half a million killed by Chernobyl is nonsense. The real problem is people who make such statements and then fill up their tanks with toxic gasoline and pollute the guy behind them on the road without think twice about what they are doing.

Bring on nuclear power. The air will be cleaner and fewer people will be dying from air pollution.

anon42880
Post 8

doesn't the waste stay forever on the earth?

anon35958
Post 7

You forget though the half a million people that died of cancer resulting from the fall out resulting from the Chernobyl incident.

anon31229
Post 6

It explained that Chernobyl was caused due to inadequate safety measures. This is unlikely to happen again, given the amount of planning and design being put into newer plants.

anon25072
Post 4

Nuclear does have a future, anon21623. There is actually a large amount of available materials, which is constantly renewed by the nuclear decay process. Though radiation poisoning can be an issue, this risk is actually very small and applies to only a few people who are closely associated with handling and disposal. As for CO2, the amount produced by nuclear plants is nothing compared to that produced by using fossil fuels to produce energy. And the Chernobyl incident is not as bad as people make it out to be. Only 30 people died! More people die in traffic accidents on a regular basis, but nobody has recently suggested that we abolish the use of vehicles!

anon21623
Post 3

Nuclear has no future, It is unsustainable, Poisonous, and creates huge amounts of Co2 pollution. Chernobyl was absolutely devastating and it could easily happen again.

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