The origins of nuclear energy can be traced back to 1932 when physicist Ernest Rutherford discovered that immense amount of energy was released when lithium ions were split by protons from a proton accelerator. After subsequent discoveries from Niels Bohr and Albert Einstein, nuclear energy was able to power nuclear reactor for energy generation. Today, uranium, a common element in the Earth’s crust, is the element of choice for conducting nuclear fission for generating electricity. Going by today’s consumption rate of the element, numerous studies estimate the reserves to last for another 200 years’ worth of supply. Nuclear energy is distinct from any other source of energy and has its own sets of pros and cons.
Advantages of nuclear energy
Continuous electricity generation
Nuclear power unlike other sources of energy is independent of natural conditions. For instance, solar and wind energy is highly dependent on hours of sunlight or wind which doesn’t usually coincide with fluctuating energy demands. A nuclear power plant is generating electricity about 90% of the annual time which is relatively high compared to other forms of renewable energy. In comparison, natural gas generates an average electricity of 50% of the annual time, while coal and wind produce energy at almost 51% and 32% respectively.
A significant advantage of using nuclear power over fossil fuel is the relatively low amount of fuel it is required to produce an equivalent amount of energy. The cost of nuclear fuel, i.e., uranium, accounts for only 20% of the cost of electricity generated. Such high levels of efficiency also make it easier in transportation, handling, and extraction of nuclear fuel and subsequently reduces the overall costs in the supply chain.
Clean source of energy
The only byproduct generated out of a nuclear power plant is used uranium which is safely stored in pools or concrete containers. Unlike other fossil fuel source, it does not emit CO2 causing air pollution and acid rain. Of all the clean energy sources like wind, solar, and hydro, nuclear power is the most significant source of clean-energy generation in the US contributing to 64% of the total output.
Disadvantages of nuclear energy
The radioactive waste generated as a byproduct of nuclear power is hazardous and has to be carefully stored and monitored for several thousand years. Although high-security standard is maintained to store this waste effectively, accidents can still happen with deadly consequences for both humans and nature. A nuclear or radiation accident such as Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, Chernobyl disaster, and Three Mile Island accident have posed serious questions to the safety of nuclear energy.
High capital investment
Although the fuel source of nuclear power, uranium, is relatively low, the cost of electricity is significantly driven by the high rate of initial investment for constructing a nuclear plant. So nuclear plant will have to run for a number of years in order to recoup the initial investment. Additionally, nuclear plants also have a limited life; after expiry, they have to be dismantled. The construction time for a nuclear power plant usually takes 4-5 years with a payback period of over 30 years which is relatively high considering other source of energy.
Fossil fuels can be mined in many parts of the world, which is not particularly accurate for uranium, which is a very scarce resource. Only a handful of countries have uranium ores, and getting the approval from several international authorities is a tiresome process before building a nuclear power plant. As a result, not many countries can depend on nuclear energy to fulfill the energy demand.
To know more about pros and cons of nuclear energy, nuclear power plant, and the nuclear reactor: