Nuclear energy pros and cons
This affordable energy can be green — unless something goes wrong
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As fossil fuels are challenged by more eco-friendly energy producers, like solar power, the debate over nuclear energy is heating up. Like other forms of energy, nuclear power has its advantages and disadvantages. It also sparks fear, thanks to devastating accidents like Chernobyl and Fukushima.
While the debate on the safety and practicality of nuclear energy continues, it’s important to know that this form of energy production is already fairly widely used in the U.S. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), nuclear power is responsible for approximately 20% of all energy generated in the country since 1990, and as of publishing, there are 54 nuclear power plants operating in 28 states.
- Produces fewer greenhouse gasses
- Affordable for consumers
- Produces radioactive waste
- Potential for serious accidents
- Not renewable
Advantages of nuclear energy
Nuclear energy is a clean, efficient energy source that produces fewer greenhouse gas emissions than traditional energy sources, and it can provide a steady supply of energy even during peak demand. It’s also cost-effective and one of the cheapest energy sources available.
Nuclear power plants run every day, all day, thanks to lower maintenance needs than other types of energy plants. They only need refueling around every year and a half to two years and rarely need fixing. Nuclear energy also has no weather-related availability constraints.
According to the United States Office of Nuclear Energy, nuclear power plants are the most reliable source of energy — nuclear energy is one and a half to two times more reliable than natural gas and coal and roughly 2 1/2 to 3 1/2 times more reliable than wind and solar energy.
The biggest benefit of nuclear energy is, like solar power, it produces carbon-free electricity without any greenhouse gasses. “It generates power through fission, which is the process of splitting uranium atoms to produce energy,” said Irina Tsukerman, a geopolitical analyst and member of the American Bar Association's Section of Environment, Energy, and Resources.
This zero-emission energy source meets many of the requirements set by various international, national and state agreements and policies. Nuclear plants produced 50% of the “clean energy” made in the U.S. in 2021. Altogether, the U.S. avoided more than 476 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions in 2021 by using nuclear energy, according to the Nuclear Energy Institute.
“The heat released by fission is used to create steam that spins a turbine to generate electricity without the harmful byproducts emitted by fossil fuels. It is thus considered one of the most environmentally friendly forms of energy in the world,” Tsukerman said.
Nuclear power plants are very inexpensive to operate compared with other forms of energy, and these savings can trickle down to the consumer. According to Tsukerman, “A state-by-state breakdown shows that the use of nuclear plants ends up saving consumers hundreds of dollars annually (approximately $230 to $250).”
Disadvantages of nuclear energy
On the other hand, nuclear energy produces radioactive waste that can be difficult and costly to manage and dispose of — and it can cause serious accidents if not managed properly. Also, unlike other clean energy sources, nuclear energy is not renewable.
It produces radioactive waste
An issue with nuclear power is the leftover radioactive waste from the production of electricity. The waste has to be securely stored to prevent risks to health and the environment. This is a major challenge because currently there’s no way to destroy this waste safely — so storage space and procedures are a major concern.
Radioactive waste is a real concern, but, fortunately, most nuclear plant waste has fairly low radiation levels.
According to the EIA, radioactive waste can remain radioactive for thousands of years. Most waste from nuclear plants, though, consists of relatively low-level radiation.
Another downside is the environmental impact of the mining and enrichment of uranium. Trucks and machinery that run on fossil fuels are used for both mining and enrichment, releasing pollution into the air and further depleting natural resources. Technology advancements may diminish the negative impact of these processes over time.
It can cause serious accidents
With the history of deadly and environmentally devastating accidents, such as Chernobyl and Fukushima, many can’t picture a world where nuclear power is the go-to for all our electric needs.
While reactors and plants are becoming increasingly safer, there’s no guarantee that an accident won’t happen again. There’s also the possibility for nuclear plants to become a national security threat in the event of a physical or cyber compromise. “Physical, cybersecurity and safety protocols must improve, and all the personnel involved in management has to be trained and consistently educated to avoid issues,” Tsukerman, the geopolitical analyst, said.
That said, though both nuclear plants and nuclear bombs use fission to operate, a nuclear plant can’t explode like a nuclear bomb. This is because the fuel isn’t as enriched as the fuel used for a nuclear bomb.
It’s not renewable
Energy sources need to be renewable if humans plan to use them long into the future. While some say nuclear power is a renewable resource, it’s not. Nuclear energy needs uranium to create energy, and uranium is a rare resource. According to Tsukerman, the amount of uranium available is expected to last another 80 years.
Nuclear energy facts
For more context, we’ve pulled some quick facts about nuclear energy today from EIA and the Office of Nuclear Energy:
- The U.S. produces more nuclear energy than any other country.
- The U.S. started using nuclear fission for power in 1958 at a plant in Shippingport, Pennsylvania.
- The average age of nuclear reactors in the U.S. is about 40 years old.
- The newest nuclear reactor in the U.S. was put into service in 2016.
- 778 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity were produced by nuclear power in 2021.
Nuclear energy safety
The good news: The safety of nuclear energy is highly regulated. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which the United Nations formed in 1957, governs nuclear energy safety.
For the most part, these regulations have kept nuclear plants safe. As a result, nuclear power plant risks (like core meltdown or radiation leaks from earthquakes) are “low and declining,” according to the World Nuclear Association. Advances in technology, such as the development of smaller-size reactors, are making nuclear power safer, too.
Out of the 36 countries that use nuclear power, there’ve only been three major accidents: Three Mile Island in the U.S. in 1979, Chernobyl in Ukraine in 1986, and Fukushima Daiichi in Japan in 2011. The Chernobyl event led to a worldwide increase in safety protocols. After Fukushima, even more safety measures were created and put into practice.
According to a report by Our World in Data, nuclear energy is responsible for 99.8% fewer deaths than coal and around 99.7% fewer deaths than oil. It’s important to note, though, that nuclear energy has the potential for significant and deadly disasters that cause radiation contamination that’s difficult to clean up.
- Article sources
- ConsumerAffairs writers primarily rely on government data, industry experts and original research from other reputable publications to inform their work. Specific sources for this article include:
- U.S. Energy Information Administration, “Nuclear explained Nuclear power plants.” Accessed Jan. 5, 2023.
- U.S. Energy Information Administration, “Nuclear explained: U.S. nuclear industry.” Accessed Jan. 5, 2023.
- U.S. Energy Information Administration, “Nuclear explained: Nuclear power and the environment.” Accessed Jan. 5, 2023.
- U.S. Office of Nuclear Energy, “5 Fast Facts About Nuclear Energy.” Accessed Jan. 5, 2023.
- U.S. Office of Nuclear Energy, “3 Reasons Why Nuclear is Clean and Sustainable.” Accessed Jan. 5, 2023.
- Nuclear Energy Institute, “Annual Greenhouse Gas Emissions Avoided by the U.S. Nuclear Power Plants.” Accessed Jan. 5, 2023.
- World Nuclear Association, “Safety of Nuclear Power Reactors.” Accessed Jan. 5, 2023.
- Our World in Data, “Nuclear Energy,” Accessed Jan. 5, 2023.
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