Continuing our discussion, today we turn to nuclear energy. Yes, I know that nuclear is not technically considered a renewable energy source, however I believe that it will need to play a role in a carbon neutral power grid in the future. I am also going to preface this discussion with a disclaimer. In all previous discussion I am definite proponent of each renewable energy source. As I start to write this post, I can truthfully say I do not entirely know where I stand on nuclear energy. I see both the pros and cons of this energy source, and I know that I am in favor of nuclear energy over coal power and other fossil fuels. I see that there is enormous potential for generating energy, but also risk of catastrophic failure. I am approaching this discussion, thus, as a curious mind hoping to better understand this topic and give you the information needed to formulate your own opinions.
First, let us discuss how nuclear energy works. A nuclear plant operates under some of the same mechanisms as coal plant and geothermal plants, covered in my geothermal basics post. Enriched Uranium is used to generate vast amounts of heat through a process of fission, in which an atom’s nucleus is split in two. This is then used to heat water to the point of evaporation and the steam produced thenrotates turbines to produce electricity. The issue here is the waste produced during the process of producing energy as well as in obtaining and enriching the uranium in the first place.
I may have tip-toed into the cons there so let us jump right in and really look at the non-monetary costs of nuclear energy. As I mentioned above the process of mining and enriching uranium is dirty and leaves its own environmental impact as directly evidenced by lung cancer rates amongst the Navajo people living near old uranium mines. Additionally, the radioactive waste needs to be disposed of once the uranium is used. I will be upfront and say that his second concern may not be as large a threat as previously thought. For example, France has been reprocessing its nuclear waste to reuse it in the nuclear energy process, yielding only 0.2% of non-recycled high-level waste in need of disposal. Another concern with nuclear waste is the effects of a nuclear disaster. Two key examples of this are Chernobyl; which was caused by human error, and Fukushima; which was triggered by natural disaster. The point here being that even with the appropriate technology in place wide reaching disaster can still strike when dealing with nuclear energy.
A major pro of nuclear energy is that is reliable and can be used to generate electricity for the next 80 years. Nuclear energy is already a huge part of energy gird, with 20% of electricity in the US produced through nuclear energy. And really the carbon footprint that nuclear energy produces is much, much smaller than its fossil fuel counterparts. All in all, I believe that nuclear energy will not be a cornerstone of our energy grid in 200 years, but I think that it will be an indispensable tool over the next century as we transition from a fossil fuel centric energy grid to an increasing renewable and green grid.
If you found this post informative and have your own concerns or compliments regarding nuclear energy leave a comment below!