For some reason, nuclear energy is often left out in the cold despite being the second largest source of low carbon electricity.
One of the most obvious reasons is a common misconception that nuclear power has something to do with nuclear weapons.
While both technologies rely on nuclear fission to produce energy, they could not be more different.
Nuclear power taps into the power of the atom to generate high temperature steam that in turn spins turbines to generate power like in many conventional power stations. To do this, it is imperative that the energy released through the fission reaction is contained so it can be exploited to maximum effect.
Nuclear weapons on the contrary are designed to release a large amount of energy in one massive explosion.
One potential major benefit of nuclear energy, is that it does not contribute harmful emissions into the air. Nuclear is a zero emission clean energy source and by extension much greener for the environment than many other alternatives.
In fact, according to the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), the United States alone managed to save 476 million metric tons of carbon dioxide in 2019 thanks to its existing nuclear power plants. That is the equivalent to removing 100 million cars from the road.
Moreover, the power per area of nuclear power facilities is much higher than that of renewables. A typical 1000 megawatt nuclear plants needs a little more than one square mile of land to operate.
To get the equivalent output from a wind farm, you will need at least 360 times more land and for solar power, you would need around 75 times more space. In other words, to get the same output as a nuclear power plant, you would need to replace it with 3 million solar panels or 430 wind turbines.
Nuclear power is one of the most waste efficient forms of energy too. It not only requires far smaller amounts of actual fuel to run but also generates very small amounts of waste in comparison to other traditional fuel sources.
In fact, since nuclear power plants have been in operation in the United States over 60 years, the total amount of waste generated could fit on a single football field at a depth of less than 10 yards.
But calling this material waste is something of a misnomer too. Oftentimes, waste fuel can actually be recycled using more advanced reactors such as thorium or salt reactors. Moreover, some advanced reactor designs in development that could consume or run on waste fuel in the future.
There are also plans to use nuclear waste for other applications like the development of diamond battery power currently in development at the University of Bristol. Among others, this kind of innovation hopes to be able to provide a near infinite source of energy.
But waste is one of nuclear energy’s drawbacks. Nuclear waste is highly hazardous and requires very special facilities to store and dispose of it.
It must be stored safely for very long periods of time. If nuclear materials leaks into the environment, it is potentially very dangerous.
However, as the nuclear industry is one of the most highly regulated on the planet, extreme measures are taken to ensure this is unlikely to happen.
Another thorn in nuclear energy’s side is that when it goes wrong, it goes wrong really wrong. Chernobyl, Fukushima, Three Mile Island, and other notable nuclear disasters have been highly destructive to the environment and to human life.
However, despite these indisputably disastrous events, nuclear power is actually one of the safest ways to generate power. You can compare it to flying in a plane. While statically the safest way to travel, when it goes wrong the casualty rates are usually horrific.
According to the world Nuclear Association, in over 17,000 cumulative reactor years of commercial operation in 33 countries, the industry has had only three major accidents. This is an impressive record.
It can be argued that nuclear power is not only safe for the environment but as green as other renewable technologies.