For what will our third form of alternative energy discussed in this series, I thought we would start talking about one of the more well known forms: nuclear energy. With over 11% of the world's energy being generated from nuclear power plants, it's no stretch to say that this means of production has already been widely adopted. Nonetheless, it's still worth debating whether or not it should be implemented further. With the well-known meltdowns in Chernobyl and Japan the common consensus is that nuclear energy is extremely dangerous. But is this actually true? Should we start using nuclear energy more often, or should the plants in use now be dismantled, and nuclear energy forgotten forever?
What is nuclear energy?
First off, I find it most important to note that nuclear energy is a broad term. There are actually two types of nuclear energy production: fission and fusion. Fission, the older of the two, is when an atom is split apart. Whenever this occurs, heat energy is released, which in turn is used to boil water, which then evaporates into steam which is used to spin a turbine. This turbine generates energy through its kinetic motion, creating electricity. Fusion, on the other hand, is the combining of two nuclei, which also releases heat energy. As it stands now, fission is what we use in our power plants currently, while fusion is only a conceptual idea. However, there are currently many groups working to make fusion a reality, and according to recent breakthroughs it may only be a decade away.
What can nuclear energy be used for?
Because nuclear power plants generate electricity directly, unlike geothermal plants, they can be used for a host of different processes. Chief among these are powering homes, powering gadgets, and powering cities. While it would be less efficient, this electricity can be converted into other forms in order to complete other processes too. And, because nuclear power plants don't take up much space, and produce a lot of energy, there is not a need for many plants to supply our energy needs. Combined with the fact that they can be wired to supply energy over long distances, the uses for nuclear generated energy are quite high. But does that mean they should be used?
Pros of nuclear energy
The pros and cons of nuclear energy are quite different depending on which type of nuclear power one talks about. So, for the purpose of this post, I will be focusing mainly on the pros and cons of nuclear fission, simply because it's the only type of nuclear energy currently in use today.
Minimal pollution- nuclear fission gives off a lot less pollution then coal, natural gas, or oil does. Use of this energy can help decrease our pollution and lessen our effect on the environment and climate change.
Doesn't require a lot of space- nuclear power plants, in comparison to other means of producing energy, are fairly small. This means we would have to dedicate less space for energy production, leaving more for other uses and environmental habitats.
Fairly low costs- while the initial construction and start up of nuclear plants are quite expensive, maintenance and control does not cost nearly as much as other energy sources. This would allow us to put funds normally used for energy to other causes.
Consistent- while not infinite, the amount of uranium and other materials we can use to harvest nuclear energy will be around for quite a long time, unlike other traditional energy sources.
Cons of nuclear energy
The Uranium mining industry- much like palm oil, nuclear power itself isn't terrible, but the industry behind it is. The way we mine uranium today is extremely detrimental to surrounding environments, and is another huge problem for the environment. However, much like palm oil, uranium mining techniques can be improved, but as of yet there is no incentive for companies to do so.
Dangerous- this is a bit of a misconception, but a con nonetheless. Accidents within nuclear power plants can happen, as shown with the catastrophes of Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. However, these previous mistakes occurred because of poor manufacturing, maintenance, and upkeep techniques. Today, new designs on these power plants make meltdowns much less likely, but this is still a con to keep in mind.
Creates radioactive waste- byproducts of nuclear power plants are radioactive and dangerous. However, it can be easily stored, and new recycling techniques are limiting the amount of actual waste produced.
Possibility for weaponry- implementing nuclear power in other countries could give them a chance to create weaponry from it, causing nuclear proliferation.
Talking about nuclear fusion
However, these are the cons for nuclear fission. Nuclear fusion, on the other hand, seems to be a much more promising option. Not only does it produce more energy than nuclear fission, but produces much less waste and poses little to no risk of meltdowns or other accidents. As it stands now, nuclear fusion essentially improves upon all the previous downsides of fission. It's clean, safe, efficient, and easily implementable on a larger scale. However, as of today, it remains only a concept being tested.
Should it be used? (My opinion)
Personally, I do not think nuclear fission should be used more than it already is. Yes, it does give us lots of reliable energy, and can take up a small footprint in terms of both size and pollution, but the potential risk for harm outweighs these benefits in my eyes. While there has not been a meltdown in the U.S, increased usage around the country combined with the stronger weather we are bound to face in the coming years means that the chances for failure are increased. And personally, the amount of energy we get is not worth losing lives from a possible meltdown. Nuclear fusion, on the other hand, seems much more promising, and personally I would like it to be used when the concept is fully flushed out and the uranium mining industry is improved.
So, while nuclear fission doesn't seem to be the best option (although it's already implemented) nuclear fusion seems promising. And, with new developments bound to happen for both types, It's likely that we will see more nuclear plants in the future. As long as we are careful with what we build, I believe nuclear energy can be successful, but as we've seen with it in the past, caution may not always be used. So, all in all, in terms of nuclear energy I would say proceed, but proceed with caution. Many lives hand in the balance, and one slip up could end in catastrophe.
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