The Clean Truth of Nuclear Energy as a Renewable Resource

Shippingport ReactorWhile nuclear energy has come under a lot of scrutiny in the last several decades, mainly due to the two most famous incidents, The Three Mile Island accident and the disastrous Chernobyl explosion, nuclear power remains a viable renewable energy source that has minor environmental implications.

Nuclear powered aircraft carrier

Nuclear powered aircraft carrier

Nuclear power isn’t a new concept. The very first nuclear fission was achieved in 1934 by an Italian Physicist named Enrico Fermi and the first nuclear power plant to generate electricity for an actual power grid was the USSR’s Obninsk Nuclear Power Plant in 1954 1. The United States wasn’t far behind with the construction of the Shippingport Reactor in Pennsylvania by the end of 1957. But even before the United States completed the construction on our first reactor, the US Navy embraced the power of nuclear energy and constructed the very first nuclear powered submarine in 1954 called the USS Nautilus. Since then, the US Navy has used nuclear energy to power more marine transportation than any other organization, powering watercraft like submarines and aircraft carriers.

Since the birth of nuclear power, the US has begun a steady process of developing this renewable energy source, but politics and misinformation about the energy source has somewhat slowed down the overall growth and use of nuclear in our energy consumption. It still stands today, however, that nuclear power is the world’s largest source of emission-free energy – a fact that is indisputably hard to ignore.

How Does Nuclear Energy Work?

To really understand nuclear energy, you have to first understand the general mechanics of the process in creating nuclear power. Nuclear energy occurs during a process called nuclear fission, where the atomic nucleus of an element absorbs a neutron and splits the atom into two or more smaller nuclei and releases a large amount of energy. Nuclear power plants harness this thermal energy to boil water and generate steam, which in turn powers a steam turbine and creates electricity.

Nuclear power can come from the fission of many different kinds of elements including, uranium, plutonium, or thorium. However, almost all of the nuclear power generated today comes from uranium 2. Today, almost 20% of all the electricity produced in the United States comes from using nuclear power 3.

The Benefits of Using Nuclear Power

Nuclear power is a clean source of energy that produces no carbon-dioxide emissions or greenhouse gases. That means there is little impact on the environment, and we could actually improve the quality of the air if nuclear were to replace other fossil-burning energy sources such as coal, which produce huge amounts of pollution and waste.

For example, to make the comparison of nuclear power and coal, nuclear power produces only 2,000 tons of solid waste each year. While coal produces more than 100,000,000 tons of solid waste in the form of ash and sludge every year 4. That ash that is released into our environment contains poisons such as mercury and nitric acid – pollutants that are both harmful to the environment and to our health!

Also nuclear power has another advantage over coal. The fission of just one atom of uranium produces more than 10 million times the energy that comes from burning an atom of carbon from coal 5.

Nuclear Plant

Nuclear Plant

In terms of safety, nuclear power has been plagued by the myth that the harnessing of this type of clean energy is unsafe, but did you know that there has not been one single fatality from Nuclear power in the United States? During the Three Mile Island incident back in 1979, the reactor was destroyed, but the core itself remained confined and there is no evidence that the public was harmed.

Chernobyl mir

Even more interesting is the infamous Chernobyl accident in 1986. When we really examine the facts of the case, we begin to understand that when compared to other accidents that happen all over the world in the coal mining industry, the effects of Chernobyl were relatively minor. Only 31 people were killed during the explosion.

In the United States alone, there have been 717 coal mining disasters that resulted in at least 5 or more deaths, and more than 1500 coal miners die a year from black lung – a result of coal dust particles settling in the lungs 6. On average, about 60 people in the US die from coal mining accidents every year. In China, just from 2000 – 2008, almost 50,000 people have died due to coal mining 7.

Thousands of fatalities have occurred due to coal mining in the history of the United States. Compare that to not a single lost life for nuclear power in US history and there really is no comparison. After examining the construction of Chernobyl, it was determined that the design of the power plant was extremely poor and the actual maintenance itself wasn’t up to par either. The reactor actually reached 150 times its normal power level before the water pressure was high enough to blow the plant apart.

The Future of Nuclear Power

In 2009, there were 439 nuclear reactors operating in 30 countries, with more than 40 under current construction. The United States has 104 nuclear reactors in operation today, generating 20% of our total electricity production, and 26 new nuclear reactors are on the immediate horizon for the US.

History of Nuclear Power

History of Nuclear Power

While the construction of nuclear power plants had waned in recent years, the current geopolitical circumstances have revived the US’s interest in developing nuclear power. With sufficient nuclear power, the United States could potentially reduce the current dependency on foreign imports for gas and oil and decrease the amount of pollution caused by the burning of these fuels.

Nuclear power is a powerful source of clean energy that can’t be ignored. It has vast potential to power our country’s energy needs without the dangers of mining and the harmful environmental implications that are produced from fossil-fuel consumption. And, when combined with other renewable clean energy sources such as wind, solar, hydro, and geothermal power, it could eventually lead to the United States being solely powered by clean, efficient energy that originates within our borders, cutting down our reliance on other countries to provide us with sufficient resources to supply our increased demand for energy.

1. Nuclear Power in Russia. World Nuclear Association. http://world-nuclear.org/info/inf45.htm

2. Frequently Asked Questions About Nuclear Energy. http://www-formal.stanford.edu/jmc/progress/nuclear-faq.html

3. Nuclear Power Now. http://www.nuclearnow.org/

4. Nuclear Power Now. http://www.nuclearnow.org/

5. Frequently Asked Questions About Nuclear Energy. http://www-formal.stanford.edu/jmc/progress/nuclear-faq.html

6. Mining Disasters. http://rogerphilpot.homestead.com/Miningdisasters.html

7. US Coal Mining Deaths:1990 – 2008. http://frankwarner.typepad.com/free_frank_warner/2006/01/us_coal_mining_.html

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