The advantages and disadvantages of nuclear energy have made this alternative energy source one of the most controversial on the market today. Advocates for and against nuclear energy are equally passionate about their causes. Understanding the pros and cons of this energy source can help you make a more informed decision about your own energy use.
Nuclear Power Source
Nuclear energy is used to produce electricity. Heat generated from the splitting of uranium atoms in a process known as fission is used to produce steam. This steam in turn powers turbines, which are used to produce the electricity that supplies the surrounding community.
Nuclear power stations are set up in a multiple-step process that has been designed to help contain the energy and many of its negative byproducts. This process alone is the base of several advantages and disadvantages for this energy source.
Advantages of Nuclear Energy
Despite potential drawbacks and the controversy that surrounds it, nuclear energy does have a few advantages over some other methods of energy production.
Less uranium is needed to produce the same amount of energy as coal or oil, which lowers the cost of producing the same amount of energy. Uranium is also less expensive to procure and transport, which further lowers the cost.
When a nuclear power plant is functioning properly, it can run uninterrupted for up to 540 days. This results in fewer brownouts or other power interruptions. The running of the plant is also not contingent of weather or foreign suppliers, which makes it more stable than other forms of energy.
No Greenhouse Gases
While nuclear energy does have some emissions, the plant itself does not give off greenhouse gasses. Studies have shown that what life-cycle emissions that the plants do give off are on par with renewable energy sources such as wind power. This lack of greenhouse gases can be very attractive to some consumers.
Disadvantages of Nuclear Energy
One of the reasons that nuclear energy falls under fire so frequently is due to the many disadvantages it brings.
Uranium is used in the process of fission because it's a naturally unstable element. This means that special precautions must be taken during the mining, transporting and storing of the uranium, as well as the storing of any waste product to prevent it from giving off harmful levels of radiation.
Nuclear fission chambers are cooled by water, in both the boiling water reactors (BWRs) and pressurized water reactors (PWRs). In PWRs, cold water enters through primary pipes and the secondary pipes remove the heated water away, so the coolant is not in contact with the reactor. In BWRs, water runs through the reactor core, so if there is any leakage of fuel, the water can get contaminated and is transported to the rest of system.
Used nuclear rods are immersed in water in the spent fuel pool, to cool them before they can be transported for disposal. Radio-active water can leak out of doors in the pool when the seals that keep the doors airtight malfunction.
Other pollutants released by nuclear plants are heavy metals and toxic pollutants that harm plant and animal life in aquatic bodies. Water is released into the atmosphere after being cooled but is still warm and damages the ecosystem of the sinks it flows into.
When the uranium has finished splitting, the resulting radioactive byproducts need to be removed. While recycling efforts of this waste product have been undertaken in recent years, the storage of the by-product could lead to contamination through leaks or containment failures.
Nuclear reactors are built with several safety systems designed to contain the radiation given off in the fission process. When these safety systems are properly installed and maintained, they function adequately. When they are not maintained, have structural flaws or were improperly installed, a nuclear reactor could release harmful amounts of radiation into the environment during the process of regular use. If a containment field were to rupture suddenly, the resulting leak of radiation could be catastrophic.
There have been several nuclear reactors that have failed and been shutdown that are still in existence. These abandoned reactors are taking up valuable land space, could be contaminating the areas surrounding them, yet are often too unstable to be removed.
With so many advantages and disadvantages of nuclear energy, it's no wonder that nuclear power remains one of the most controversial sources of energy in existence. Educate yourself on this topic to make an informed decision on your views of its use.