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Blog Oct 9, 2017

National Energy Awareness Month: Nuclear Energy Q&A


Over the past few years, the debate over climate change and how to best address America’s energy needs has introduced the nation to buzzwords like fossil fuels, fracking and renewable energy. However, what’s the one energy source that doesn’t seem to get talked about until something goes wrong? Nuclear energy.

  • What is nuclear energy and how does it work?

Nuclear energy is created when the bond between atoms is changed. By changing the bond between atoms, energy is released. This energy can be released through two different processes: nuclear fusion and nuclear fission. Nuclear fusion releases energy by combining multiple atoms to create one, larger atom. Nuclear fission occurs when atoms are split apart into smaller atoms, releasing energy. Nuclear fission is the process that all nuclear power plants use to produce electricity. Most plants use uranium atoms for the nuclear fission process.

During nuclear fission, a neutron collides with a uranium atom, splitting the atom and releasing a large amount of heat and radiation. The split creates more neutrons and enables more collisions between neutrons and uranium atoms. This causes a nuclear chain reaction. This chain reaction is controlled by power plants to produce a specific amount of heat.

  • How safe is nuclear energy?

A number of high-profile meltdowns in the past few decades have ignited the fight against nuclear energy. The largest meltdown in United States history occurred in 1979 at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania when a non-nuclear system failure lead to the release of radiation. Although the meltdown has had no detectable health impacts on plant workers or the public, the incident showed the need for better operating procedures at nuclear plants worldwide.

The largest breakdown in world history occurred in 1986 when the Chernobyl plant in Ukraine melted down. The incident was rated a seven out of seven on the International Nuclear Event Scale due to the large size of the radioactive cloud. The effects of the meltdown caused widespread health issues for citizens and animals, and devastation of plant life within a 30-mile radius of the plant.

Most recently, a meltdown at Japan’s Fukushima stations was triggered by an earthquake and subsequent tsunami when the natural disasters caused a breakdown in the plant’s cooling mechanisms. This breakdown released radioactive steam into the atmosphere and spilled radioactive water into the ocean. A large number of workers were exposed to elevated radiation levels, and a handful were exposed to emergency-level amounts of radiation.

These three incidents certainly highlight the safety concerns about nuclear energy production. These meltdowns were triggered by electrical and mechanical malfunctions, human error and uncontrollable natural disasters. However, when controlled

  • How does nuclear energy impact the environment?

Despite the safety concerns over nuclear meltdowns, a properly-functioning nuclear plant has far less impact on the environment than energy produced from fossil fuels. In order to produce one million kilowatt (1,000 MWe), a coal-powered power station consumes three million metric tons of coal and produces seven million metric tons of waste. A nuclear station, on the other hand, uses only 25 metric tons of uranium and produces one metric ton of radioactive waste that gets solidified for disposal, according to the World Nuclear Association.

Although there is less waste produced from nuclear energy, mining the uranium needed for nuclear energy has an equal impact on the environment as mining coal. However, mining uranium has an additional element of danger due to radioactivity. Traces of radioactive material can get into groundwater and impact surrounding areas. Although these impacts are scary to think about, the safety concerns of nuclear energy are similar to concerns about oil drilling and coal mining.

Overall, just like fossil fuels, if uranium and nuclear energy are safely mined, responsibly processed and waste is properly disposed of, the benefits of nuclear energy will help mitigate the risks.

  • How popular is nuclear energy?

Nuclear energy has experienced peaks and valleys of popularity since it was first used commercially in the 1950s. According to the World Nuclear Association, 11 percent of the world’s electricity is generated from nuclear fission of uranium in nuclear reactors. The United States produces the most nuclear energy worldwide, with France being the only other relatively close to producing the same amount.

In the United States, nuclear fission accounts for about 20 percent of the electricity generated in 2016, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. There are roughly 100 operating nuclear reactors in 61 nuclear power plants across 30 states in the United States. Although nuclear energy only accounts for about one-fifth of all electricity generation in the U.S., requests and applications to build new nuclear power facilities are still being submitted. The United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has an intense review process that helps ensure the safety of new nuclear facilities, but that process takes a long time to complete.

According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, nuclear power generation is expected to increase worldwide between 2020 and 2050. Low-end estimates cite a 17 percent increase by 2030, whereas more aggressive predictions believe a 94 percent increase is possible, effectively doubling the world’s nuclear energy generation and consumption in as little as 15 years. Although the nuclear power industry will continue to grow, the safety and environmental tradeoffs of nuclear energy will surely be debated for years to come.

Check back each week in October as Payless Power takes a closer look at different energy sources. Be sure to follow Payless Power on Facebook and Twitter for more energy statistics and electricity-saving tips!

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