Many renewable and non-renewable forms of energy are available in today's time, among which some are easy to harness. In contrast, other forms require a lot of setups to harness and utilize them effectively. While the world is switching towards renewable energy sources because of their long-term availability and less harm to the environment, some major question raises here. The important question among all these questions is which renewable energy source is best in terms of availability, cost-effectiveness, less harmful for the environment, and many other factors.
All energy sources available have some advantages of their own, but they all have some limitations. These limitations lead to the limited contribution of all renewable energy sources to the total energy requirement of the world. Non-renewable energy sources are easily available and easy to utilize, and that's why they contribute a very large percentage to the total energy requirement. One of such energy sources is nuclear energy which can be said renewable energy source but is usually considered a non-renewable energy source because of material used in nuclear energy generation is limited. Here is all the information about nuclear energy.
Introduction to Nuclear Energy
The energy generated in the nucleus, or core of an atom, is known as nuclear energy. Atoms are the tiny units from which all matter (including all living beings) in the universe is made up of and all-atom consists of the following three parts:
Note: However, the Hydrogen atom is an exception in this case because it consists of only 1 electron, 1 proton, and no neutrons in the ground state.
The core of the atom consists of protons (which are positively charged particles) and neutrons (which have no charge), and it is known as the nucleus of the atom. It is the energy present in the nucleus that holds protons and neutrons tightly inside the nucleus, and it is known as nuclear energy. In fact, this force of the nucleus, also called nuclear force, is known to be the strongest force in the universe. A huge amount of energy is present in an atom's nucleus, which is densely packed with protons and neutrons. This nuclear energy of an atom can be used for many purposes but for this; the energy must release from the nucleus first. Therefore, if nuclear energy has been harnessed for fulfilling energy requirements, it has to be released first from the nucleus of an atom and captured in nuclear energy storing devices.
Nuclear energy can be used for many purposes, but most commonly, it is used for generating electricity through nuclear power plants. An atom's nucleus releases nuclear energy throughout its life span; that's why it has been said that nuclear energy is like a renewable source of energy but since the material (elements) used to produce nuclear energy is limited, nuclear energy is a non-renewable energy source. Nuclear energy is a powerful source to fulfill energy requirements if it is harnessed properly and used in the required sectors. But at the same time, many risks come while generating nuclear energy, such as risks to human health, the risk to the environment, etc.
Nuclear Energy: Generation of nuclear energy
The chain reaction which is used to produce nuclear energy is known as nuclear fission, in which the nucleus of an atom breaks into two small parts. During a nuclear fission reaction, the nucleus of an atom generally breaks into two small nuclei, but sometimes, multiple nuclei also form during this reaction. During the breakdown of the nucleus of an atom into two or multiple small nuclei, energy is released from the nucleus, which is known as nuclear energy.
Nuclear fission is a naturally occurring chain process, but it can also be initiated through many devices and technologies to generate nuclear energy. Nuclear fission is a chain reaction in which the nucleus of an atom breaks down into two nuclei, and the resultant small nuclei break down into two more nuclei. This reaction continues until the stage reaches where the smaller nucleus can't breakdown further. The naturally occurring nuclear fission reaction is very slow, and it takes a year to break down a nucleus of an atom because of its long life span.
Therefore, to produce nuclear energy according to mankind's energy requirements, nuclear fission reaction is carried out manually. A nuclear reactor is a device in which a nuclear fission reaction can be initiated manually by providing the required environment. Other than this, nuclear energy is also generated in the nuclear power plants where nuclear reactors are already installed.
Nuclear Power plant:
A nuclear power plant is a series of machines or nuclear reactors which are installed there to control the nuclear fission for producing electric energy from the nuclear energy released during the process. Pellets of Uranium atoms are the most common fuel of a nuclear power plant or nuclear reactor, which are used to produce nuclear energy by initiating nuclear fission reactions.
Working of a nuclear reactor or power plant:
Uranium atoms, the fuel of a nuclear reactor, are forced to break apart inside the reactor through the fission reaction. When the uranium atoms break into parts, tiny particles are released, known as the fission products. These fission products cause the break down of other uranium atoms into parts, and thus, a chain fission reaction is started inside the nuclear reactor. During this chain reaction, nuclear energy is released from the atoms, producing heat in the reactor. This heat created by the nuclear fission inside the nuclear reactor warms the reactor's cooling agent. Usually, water is used as the cooling agent of the nuclear reactor, but some nuclear reactors also use molten salt or liquid metal as the cooling agent.
When the cooling agent warms by the heat produced during the nuclear fission, it produces steam in the reactor, and the generated steam turns turbines. After that, engines or generators which produce electricity are driven by these turbines. A nuclear poison is the rod of materials used to adjust how much electricity should be produced from the nuclear reactor. The materials used in the nuclear poison rods are such as elements like Xenon because such elements are able to absorb some of the fission products released during the reaction. Xenon is a noble gas element, but it can form some complex compounds with radioactive elements, and thus it helps in controlling the fission chain reaction. Therefore, the more nuclear poison rods present in the nuclear reactor, the more controlled reaction will be carried out and become easier to slow down the rate of the fission reaction. If more electricity is required to be produced from the reactor, nuclear poison rods can be removed from the reactor to allow a stronger fission chain reaction.
As per the data from the research of 2011, about 15% of the world's total electricity requirement is produced using nuclear energy. The USA alone has more than 100 nuclear plants in its original land, but most of these plants use hydroelectric energy and energy from fossil fuels to create electricity. Many nations such as Slovakia, France, and Lithuania, use only nuclear energy as the primary energy source to produce almost all of their energy.
Uranium: The nuclear food
Uranium is the most common and most widely used nuclear fuel in the nuclear reactors for producing nuclear energy. The main reason behind this is that the radioactive Uranium atoms are relatively easier to break down during the fission reaction. Apart from that, Uranium is a very common element found all over the rocks present in the world, which makes its availability very cheaper and easier than all other radioactive elements. However, the radioactive isotope of the Uranium atom (U-235) used as the nuclear fuel for producing nuclear energy is very rare. It covers only less than 1 percent of the total Uranium available globally.
The USA mines some of the Uranium used in the nuclear energy in the country, but the major contribution of this nuclear fuel is imported from other Uranium-rich countries. Major importers for the USA that provide it with radioactive Uranium fuel are Uzbekistan, Russia, Kazakhstan, Canada, and Australia. Once the radioactive Uranium isotope is mined, it should be immediately extracted from all the other minerals mined with it and also, this extracted and mined Uranium should also be processed before using it as nuclear fuel.
Almost 200 Kg radioactive Uranium is used every year by a single nuclear reactor. Many complex processes and techniques have been developed over the years to re-enrich or recycle some uranium and Plutonium (another nuclear fuel). These complex processes create less demand for new nuclear fuel and thus help in reducing the process of mining, extracting, and processing that needs to be done.
Note: Because nuclear reactors and nuclear weapons are created using nuclear fuel such as Uranium (U-235) and Plutonium, these nuclear fuels are not allowed to be imported into every country. Only nations that are a part of the NPT (Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty) are allowed to import these nuclear fuels, and that's why nuclear energy sources are limited to only a few nations. NPT committee, which was formed to limit the spreading of nuclear weapons and make peaceful use of nuclear fuels in all its member nations, is now signed by multiple nations.
Nuclear Energy: Advantages
With the name of nuclear energy, first of all, nuclear energy crises such as Chernobyl, Fukushima, and many others come to mind. This makes the image of nuclear energy not so good in the mind of common people even though it has numerous advantages. Nuclear energy has multiple advantages over other energy sources such as hydroelectric energy, sunlight, etc. This makes it one of the most popular energy sources among all the energy sources available for use. Nuclear energy has so many advantages that if it is harnessed properly, it will fulfill the demand of all energy requirements of the world for a very long time. It would come as a surprise for many, but nuclear energy is also considered one of the most environmental-friendly energy sources for producing power and electricity. The advantages of nuclear energy should be studied thoroughly To understand what it is actually capable of.
Following are the advantages of using nuclear energy as an energy source for power and electricity generation:
1) Low cost for power generation and operations:
Nuclear power reactors have very low operation costs, and it is cheaper to produce electricity and generate power from nuclear power plants. However, the installation and construction cost for building a nuclear power plant is very high, but it should be considered as the initial long-term investment for cheaper energy generation. Unlike the traditional fossil fuels and petroleum energy sources such as CNG and coal, it is very rare to see any kind of high price fluctuations in nuclear energy. And, that's why investment in nuclear energy sources, and nuclear power plants, is very safe because the future price of nuclear energy is easily predictable. The price of nuclear energy will likely get even lower with the advancements in technologies and nuclear energy generation techniques.
2) One of the reliable energy sources:
The reliability of nuclear energy as one of the prominent power generation sources is one of its biggest advantages. Nuclear energy can be generated anytime of the day or in any season without affecting the total production and efficiency. This is a huge limitation in the case of solar and wind energy where the sun needs to be shine, or winds need to be blowing to maintain the production of energy. It means that nuclear energy can be nonstop produced from the nuclear power plants throughout the year without affecting the efficiency and total production of the power plant, and any kind of delay wouldn't be faced in this case.
That's why it is said that investment in nuclear power plants is an excellent and long-term investment. One more reason to say that nuclear power plants are most reliable is that the world has enough uranium and other nuclear fuels for the next 70-80 years. Thus, it is a very confident-sounding statement that nuclear energy is surely available for at least the next 80 years. Maybe, it sounds not that long, but if the duration is compared to fossil fuels, it is much longer.
3) Zero Carbon Emissions:
One of the biggest advantages of nuclear energy is that nuclear reactors do not produce any form of carbon emissions. This is also a huge advantage over traditional energy sources such as petroleum and natural gases, which releases tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) every year into the atmosphere and harm the environment. The excess carbon dioxide in the environment is one of the major reasons for climate change, and all traditional fuels contribute more to this excess carbon dioxide. Therefore, energy sources like nuclear energy, which produces less carbon dioxide and greenhouse gas emissions, are far better than traditional energy sources.
In fact, according to the NEI (Nuclear Energy Institute), an institute that maintains research and development data regarding nuclear energy & power, every year, almost 528 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emission released into the environment is prevented by the production and usage of nuclear energy. Preventing emissions of 528 million metric tons of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere equals removing 100 million cars off the road for a year. Also, the other forms of energy released during the nuclear energy generation process can be used for other useful tasks, such as thermal energy generated during the nuclear fission reaction is used to decarbonize other energy-intensive sectors.
4) A promising source for future energy supply:
In the current situation, there are some hurdles and serious challenges related to nuclear energy that need to be worked out, but with the advancement of technology and improvisation in harnessing techniques, nuclear energy has been the promising future energy source for a very long time. Talking about nuclear fusion, it is the holy grail for nuclear energy production, and if this process is controlled safely, practically unlimited nuclear energy could be generated through it. This is said because nuclear fusion is the same reaction that takes place in the sun and works as a fuel for the sun (maintaining heat and temperature), and therefore, it could be used to generate unlimited nuclear energy if we learn to control it properly. As the research and development in the nuclear energy field are progressing, there are very good chances that many technologies will be developed to control the nuclear fusion process in the future safely.
5) High Energy Density:
It is revealed in research on energy sources that the amount of energy released during nuclear energy production is almost ten million times greater than the amount of energy released with the burning of fossil fuels and through other traditional energy sources. So, it is easily concluded that comparatively, a very small amount of nuclear fuel (Uranium & other sources) is required for generating the required amount of nuclear energy. And, this amount of nuclear fuel is actually very less when compared with the amount of fossil fuel that is used to generate the same amount of energy. This is also one of the major advantages of nuclear energy because this factor also contributes to lowering the generation cost of nuclear energy. It is estimated that a single nuclear power plant can generate approximately thousands of megawatt-hours of energy.
6) Generation of employments:
This is a very big advantage for all the developing countries using nuclear energy to generate electricity and other power sources. And, not just the developing countries, nuclear energy also supports job creation in developed countries. For example, it is calculated that alone in the USA, half a million jobs are supported (directly or indirectly) with nuclear energy production, and it also contributes an average of $ 60 billion each year in the GDP (Gross Domestic Product) of the USA. According to research data, a single nuclear power plant can have around 700 workers who have approximately 30% higher salaries than the local average of the country. Also, the generation, production, and distribution of nuclear energy contribute a huge amount to the income of the state and the federal government of a country by paying a good amount of tax.
7) Support National Security:
In today's time of increasing terrorism, weapons and arsenals based on nuclear energy such as nuclear missiles are becoming an important source for supporting the country's national security. Nuclear energy also provides support to many countries that are facing threatening issues and other land & region conflicts with neighboring countries. Countries having a backup source of nuclear energy can work with other countries to build good relationships and develop new opportunities in the country regarding the nation's nuclear technologies.
These are the major advantages of nuclear energy and, from the above-given points, it can be concluded that nuclear energy not only contributes to economic and other sector development of a country but also proves to be a clean energy source that protects the environment from pollution and carbon dioxide emissions.
Nuclear Energy: Disadvantages
Apart from its numerous advantages, nuclear energy has many disadvantages too, and these limitations of nuclear energy are the main reason why scientists are also looking for and working with alternate energy sources when nuclear energy is already present. Following are some of these major disadvantages of nuclear energy sources for the generation of electricity and other purposes:
1) Generation of Radioactive Waste:
One of the major and most common disadvantages of nuclear energy sources is the radioactive waste generated while producing nuclear energy. It is true that while producing nuclear energy, no harmful or greenhouse gases are released into the environment, but it produces hazardous waste, which is very much harmful to both human health and the environment. The radioactive waste produced in nuclear energy generation remains hazardous for thousands of years because of nuclear radiation released from it. Once the nuclear waste is produced, there is no easy way to decompose it, and it requires high attention and safety to deal with this waste. Till now, much research has been done, and many issues have been raised while finding out what to do with the radioactive waste generated.
Nuclear power continuously generates radioactive waste, and since there is no proper decomposition method for decomposing this waste, it has started accumulating inside the nuclear power plants. Also, nuclear power plants do not have long-term storage space for this waste, and that's why it will become even a bigger issue once nuclear power plants run out of storage to store this waste. Other than storage issues, many other concerns, such as the risk of leakage, which can cause significant damage to surrounding areas and the health of all living beings living near the power plants, etc., are related to this radioactive waste. The federal government of the USA has been looking for a proper site where this radioactive waste can be disposed of, but none of such sites has been found yet. These are some of the major concerns associated with the radioactive waste generated during the production of nuclear energy.
2) Non-renewable source of energy:
It is said that nuclear energy will stay for more than 80 years. In the end, it is a fact that nuclear energy is a non-renewable source of energy. This is because nuclear fuel (Uranium mostly) used in nuclear power plants to generate nuclear energy is available in a limited quantity and will end someday. As much as Uranium is mined, the total quantity of uranium will be depleted, and it is not possible to produce more quantity of it within a human lifetime. Like other non-renewable energy sources, nuclear energy is also available for a limited time (Maybe more than other non-renewable energy sources but still is limited too), and that's why energy requirements of the whole world cannot completely be fulfilled with nuclear energy.
Like today, the limited-time issues associated with traditional energy sources like fossil fuels, the same limited-time will be associated with the nuclear energy source in the next couple of decades. Therefore, it is not possible to become completely dependent on nuclear energy to fulfill all world's energy requirements. It is stated that if nuclear reactors run with the current production capacity, almost 200 years of uranium is available for them. But, since the world's energy requirements are increasing rapidly, it is not possible to run nuclear power plants with the same production capacity, and their production capacity will be increased in coming times. And, this will ultimately lead to more use of Uranium in the reactors, and that's how it will start depleting rapidly than what was expected. Therefore, it can be concluded that this world doesn't even have enough Uranium to run nuclear power plants for the complete 21st century, and this is going to be a major concern in upcoming years.
3) Water Intensive Property:
As already explained in the previous section of this article, nuclear reactors have a cooling agent for cooling down the reactors from the heat produced during the nuclear fission reaction, and water is mostly used as the cooling agent in the reactors. Thus, it is very understandable that a huge amount of water is required while producing nuclear energy. Nuclear power plants require lots of water, and wastewater from these plants causes water pollution too. According to data released by a US-based firm, "In 2015, the nuclear power plants in the USA alone consumed 320 billion gallons of water for producing nuclear energy." This statement clears that a huge amount of water is used while producing nuclear power, and it is even more than the amount of water used for coal processing. It may not be a major concern in today's time, but as the water is becoming rarer in many regions, especially those which are affected by climate change, this enormous consumption of water will soon become a major issue for these power plants.
4) Risk of Nuclear accidents and tragedies:
It is so much important to keep very strict safety measures in the place of nuclear power plants because otherwise, a big tragedy can occur just because of a small mistake. However, the people working in the nuclear power plants are humans, and no matter how many safety protocols they follow, still many times accidents have occurred. This is because people working in nuclear power plants are not machines that can follow some set of defined algorithms and protocols, and it is very basic nature in humans that mistakes may occur. But, these small mistakes at very sensitive places like nuclear power plants have caused big accidents in the past. That's why working at nuclear power plants is always at the risk of nuclear accidents and tragedies.
Even a small meltdown at nuclear power plants also causes a catastrophic impact on the surrounding areas. Many such events, such as Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania, Chernobyl, and Fukushima disaster, are some of the famous nuclear disasters that occurred in mankind's history. When nuclear meltdown occurs, it possesses a high risk of radiation leaks, which will adversely affect the health of all living beings (including humans) and impact the environment. Chernobyl, the nuclear disaster of 1986, this incident occurred more than three decades ago, but the impact of this disaster is still visible. When the Chernobyl event occurred, almost 4000 to 60,000 people died who were living in the surrounding areas, and more than 2 million people still have adverse health problems because of this incident. Today, more than 30 years have passed since Chernobyl incident occurred; still, there is very little access within the Chernobyl-exclusive zone.
5) Environmental Impact:
It is a fact that the generation of nuclear energy or nuclear power plants does not release any kind of greenhouse gases, but it doesn't mean that nuclear power plants don't cause any kind of threat to the environment. Nuclear power plant poses threats to the environment with other hazardous elements such as wastewater discharge, mining for nuclear fuel, and many more. The nuclear fuel (Uranium) used in the nuclear reactors is produced and collected through the mining process. Many researches have shown that mining has so many negative impacts on the surrounding area and the environment. Talking particularly about the Uranium minimum, many harmful elements such as radon, and arsenic, are released during this process. These elements not only possess threats to the environment, but they also adversely affect the health of people living in the surrounding area where Uranium mines are located. These elements cause the aging of forests and other plants and affect the health of all the living beings present in the surrounding areas of Uranium mines.
Now, moving ahead to the nuclear power plants, they also cause another major damage to the environment. The biggest negative impact on the environment from nuclear power plants is the thermal pollution caused by these power plants. Most nuclear power plants are usually located near or on a water body such as a lake or the ocean. The water used in the nuclear power plants is taken from these water bodies (which is referred to as cooling water for the nuclear reactors) and, it is used to condense steam back into the water. Later, the wastewater, whose temperature is increased during the process and produced from the nuclear reactors, is discharged into the same water body. The hot water released from the nuclear reactors into the water body changes the chemistry of water present in it because of its high temperature (which is around 100° F). Thus, it makes the water present in the water body inhabitable for aquatic life. Also, this water cannot be used for drinking and other daily life purposes.