Nuclear energy is defined as the energy obtained during a nuclear reaction.

According to World Nuclear Association, there are currently 435 operable civil nuclear power nuclear reactors around the world, with a further 72 under construction.  In 2011 the world’s nuclear reactors supplied 13 percent of global electricity.  It is recognized around the world that greenhouse gases are a major threat in the current scenario, simply because they cause global warming and climate change.  As far as nuclear energy is concerned, no greenhouse gases are emitted during nuclear reaction and consequently, there is very little effect on the environment.

The global demand for electricity will continue to intensify and in order to meet this demand, future electricity generation will need a range of options and these options must be low carbon if the global objective is to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions significantly.  The good news is that nuclear generation provides reliable supplies of electricity, with very low carbon emissions and relatively small amounts of waste that can be safely stored and eventually disposed of.

The reality is that each method opted to generate electricity, generates GHGs in varying quantities throughout the life cycle – construction, operation, and decommissioning.  Some generation methods such as coal fired power plants release the majority of GHGs when their carbon-containing fossil fuels are burnt, producing carbon dioxide (CO2). Others, such as wind power and nuclear power, give rise to much less emissions, these being during construction and decommissioning, or mining and fuel preparation in the case of nuclear.  Comparing the lifecycle emissions of electrical generation allows for a fair comparison of the different generation methods on a per kilowatt-hour basis. The lower the value, the fewer GHG emissions are released.  Here is how the World Nuclear Association summarized the result of over twenty studies assessing the GHG emission produced by different forms of electricity generation:Slide1In 2011 the world’s nuclear power plants supplied 2518 TWh (billion kWh) of electricity. The following table shows the additional emissions that would have been produced if fossil fuels had been used to generate the same amount of electricity.

According to Idaho National Laboratory, the pros and cons of nuclear energy use are not unlike those associated with all other energy sources.  Every natural resource used to generate electricity requires the expenditure of energy, the use of materials and the acceptance of some degree of risk.

The benefits of nuclear energy begin with the unparalleled energy density of the fuel used. Just one uranium fuel pellet – roughly the size of the tip of an adult’s little finger – contains the same amount of energy as 17,000 cubic feet of natural gas, 1,780 pounds of coal or 149 gallons of oil.  Other advantages of nuclear energy include life-cycle emissions of carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide that are lower than all fossil fuel forms as well as solar photovoltaic and forestry waste biomass.  From a land use perspective, multi-reactor nuclear power plants produce electricity in quantities that would require over 60 square miles of photovoltaic panels, and anywhere from 15 to over 180 square miles of wind turbines.  And the electrical energy from nuclear power plants is available when needed, not just when the sun is shining or the wind is blowing.  Only fossil fuels, hydropower and geothermal energy, which is powered by the radioactive decay of uranium deep beneath the earth’s surface, offer the same 24/7 availability.

It maybe interesting to note that the USA generates 19 percent of its total electricity using 104 nuclear power reactors.  15 percent of the total electricity generated in Canada comes from nuclear power reactors which is the output of 19 nuclear power reactors.

It should be kept in mind that nuclear technology is not just used to supply electricity to the grid; it is in a wide variety of other uses such as medicine, heating and space travel.  For instance:

  • Nuclear Medicine:  Nuclear medicine uses radiation to allow doctors to make a quick,accurate diagnosis of the functioning of person’s specific organs, or to treat them. Radiotherapy can be used to treat some medical conditions, especially cancer, using radiation to weaken or destroy particular targeted cells.
    • Tens of millions of patients are treated with nuclear medicine each year;
    • Over 10,000 hospitals worldwide use radioisotopes in medicine, and about     90  percent of the procedures are for diagnosis.  The most common radioisotope used in diagnosis is technetium-99, with some 30 million procedures per year, accounting for 80 percent of all nuclear medicine procedures worldwide; and
    • Modern industry also uses radioisotopes in a variety of ways. Sealed radioactive   sources are used in industrial radiography, gauging applications and mineral analysis.
  • Heat for Desalination: Heat from nuclear reactors can be used directly, instead or as well as being used to generate electricity. This heat can be used for district heating, as process heat for industry or for desalination plants, used to make clean drinkable water from seawater; and
  • Space Missions:  Radioisotope thermal generators are used in space missions. The heat generated by the decay of a radioactive source, often Plutonium-238, is used to generate electricity.  The Voyager space probes, the Cassini mission to Saturn, the Galileo mission to Jupiter and the New Horizons mission to Pluto all are powered by RTGs. The Spirit and Opportunity Mars rovers have used a mix of solar panels for electricity and RTGs for heat. The latest Mars rover, Curiosity, is much bigger and uses RTGs for heat and electricity as solar panels would not be able to supply enough electricity.

In the future electricity or heat from nuclear power plants could be used to make hydrogen. Hydrogen can be used in fuel cells to power cars, or can be burnt to provide heat in place of gas, without producing emissions that would cause climate change.

The graph presented below shows that both nuclear and coal power plants continue on a steady decline and oil and gas power costs are on a recent incline due to decrease in resources. From an economic view, nuclear and coal power are the most cost effective power sources.Slide3The cost advantage of nuclear power over other forms of power generation depends greatly on your location and specifically the availability of other resources around you. As many of the resources needed for power is exhausted or their byproducts are outlawed, nuclear power becomes a much more attractive alternative.  An example would be coal, which is only economically attractive in countries where carbon emissions are cost-free such as China, the USA , and Australia .  In fact, if environmental and health costs are included into the price of power produced by coal its market cost would double.  This places countries in a situation where either a large up-front-cost can be spent on building nuclear facilities or money can be saved by using resources available but will cause the environment to pay the ultimate price.

The bottomline is that nuclear energy is a highly controversial energy source that some see as a way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions while other see it as a threat to their safety.  However, the reality is that without human errors, accidents, or natural calamities, the nuclear reactors work very well and can go on for a long time.  Furthermore, once constructed, the nuclear power plant requires very few people to operate it.

next …

About Ali Mir

Dr. Ali has published numerous articles on various topics related to technologies and environment. Currently, he is in the process of completing his book on the subject of Nuclear Energy - Peaceful Ways to Serve Humanity.
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