With many experts worried about carbon emissions and the use of too many non replenishable resources, the United States has begun to turn to nuclear power. Nuclear power plants use heat produced through nuclear fission to evaporate water into steam. The steam produced spins large turbines which generate electricity. In nuclear fission, atoms are split into smaller atoms inside of a reactor, which is powered by uranium fuel in the form of ceramic pellets. These pellets are much more efficient than other energy sources; one pellet has the same amount of energy as 150 gallons of oil! Within the nuclear plants, the steam is cooled back into water in a separate building called the cooling tower, and it can be reused in this process. Some nuclear plants even use local water sources, like lakes, rivers, and oceans, to help cool the steam.
Obviously, this seems like an incredibly efficient, helpful way to create large amounts of energy. However, a question quickly arises: where does the fuel come from, and possibly more importantly, where does it go? Nuclear power plants use a special type of uranium – U-235 – because its atoms are easily split, but it is relatively rare, only making up 0.7% of natural uranium. In the United States, most uranium is gained through in-situ recovery, in which sand and gravel particles from open water reservoirs are exposed to a solution that dissolves the uranium. After the uranium is pumped out of the reservoir, conversion and enrichment facilities process the fuel and turn it into the fuel pellets mentioned earlier. There are many more steps in this process, but eventually the uranium pellets are placed in fuel assemblies and transported to the reactors. The reactor core’s mechanics are fairly simple, and placing the fuel assemblies together along with water is all that is needed to initiate nuclear fission. After the reaction, the fuel assemblies are highly radioactive and must be placed underwater for several years, which serves to cool them off and block radiation. Currently, these used fuel assemblies are held in storage containers outside power plants once they are not radioactive anymore, since the US has no permanent place to store nuclear waste.
With its varied benefits and disadvantages, many people disagree on whether nuclear power is worth the risk. Some believe that the low carbon emissions caused by nuclear power plants provide a strong argument for their use; for context, for every 29 tonnes of carbon dioxide released from nuclear power plants, solar power produces 85 tonnes, coal produces 888, and lignite produces 1,045. Additionally, nuclear power does not rely on the fortune of an outside force, like wind or sun, and plants can run for years with minimal to no maintenance. However, those against nuclear power point to incidents like Chernobyl, a famous disaster in which a nuclear reactor went out of control, destroying the nuclear plant and releasing harmful radiation, to argue that the danger of a power plant malfunctioning is not worth the potential benefits it may produce. Overall, nuclear power is a very hot topic—no pun intended—in the conversation of climate change. If utilized, these power plants could lead to energy production with much lower carbon dioxide emissions, thus slowing the build up of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere. However, eventually one will be forced to answer the essential question behind the nuclear power debate: what is more dangerous, the slow warming of our planet and loss of natural resources, or the potential of a disastrous explosion and radiation leak?