Nuclear power: the ifs, ands, and buts

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I for one, have always wondered about nuclear energy. I’ve heard both good and bad things about it. From what I’ve understood- it’s cleaner but hard to store. But first, research.

So I found out from whatisnuclear.com that everything around us is made up of tiny objects called atoms. Most of the mass of each atom is concentrated in the nucleus.

Under certain circumstances, the nucleus of a very large atom can split in two. In this process, a certain amount of the large atom’s mass is converted to pure energy  In the 1930s and ’40s, humans discovered this energy and recognized its potential as a weapon. Technology developed in the Manhattan Project successfully used this energy in a chain reaction to create nuclear bombs. Soon after World War II ended, the newfound energy source found a home in the propulsion of the nuclear navy, providing submarines with engines that could run for over a year without refueling. This technology was quickly transferred to the public sector, where commercial power plants were developed and deployed to produce electricity.

So that’s all well and good- but is it cleaner?

There are currently over 400 nuclear plants around the world (100 in the USA) and they produce energy 24/7 without emitting pollutants. They do create radioactive waste, which is hard to store. It can be stored safely if it is cooled and workers protect themselves from the radiation.

Currently, the majority of used fuel is not recycled, but reprocessing used fuel to recover uranium and plutonium avoids the wastage of a valuable resource. Most of the used fuel – about 96% – is uranium, and up to 1% is plutonium, with the remaining 3% being a high-level waste. Both reprocessed uranium and plutonium have been recycled into new fuel.

The high-level wastes (whether as used fuel after 50 years cooling or the separated 3% of reprocessed fuel) will be disposed of deep underground in geological repositories.

The categorization – high, intermediate, low –  helps determine how wastes are treated and where they end up. High-level wastes require shielding and cooling, low-level wastes can be handled easily without shielding.

All radioactive waste facilities are designed with numerous layers of protection to make sure that people remain protected for as long as it takes for radioactivity to reduce to background levels. Low-level and intermediate wastes are buried close to the surface. For low-level wastes, disposal is not much different from a normal landfill. High-level wastes can remain highly radioactive for thousands of years. They need to be disposed of deep underground in engineered facilities built in stable geological formations. While no such facilities for high-level wastes currently operate, their feasibility has been demonstrated and there are several countries now in the process of designing and constructing them.

Plans to store the majority of our nation’s spent nuclear fuel and other highly radioactive waste at a central repository underneath Yucca Mountain in the Nevada desert 80 miles from Las Vegas were first thought of in the mid-80’s. But the project has not moved forward due to opposition from the citizens of Nevada who are hesitant to allow dangerous materials into their state. Critics of the plan also point out that various natural forces such as erosion and earthquakes could render the site unstable and thus unsuitable for storing nuclear isotopes that can remain hazardous to humans for hundreds of thousands of years to come.

But is it safe?

The three major reactor accidents have shown the industry that even among the worst accidents there is little loss of life, as compared to other fuels. In addition, nuclear power producers are constantly assessing safety upgrades, in an effort to protect the public from any pollution or harm. We are living in an energy-demanding world which will continue to increase its need. The proposed shift to electric cars is just one example. Nothing is risk-free, but risk can be minimized through constant review, upgrade and new designs. Nuclear generated power meets all these criteria and more.

So the verdict is in, nuclear energy is way cleaner than fossil fuels. We just have to figure out how to streamline the waste storage process and recycle as much of it as we can.

 

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