Nuclear energy is back. Global warming and the 2007-08 spike in oil prices have renewed worldwide interest in nuclear energy. Nuclear power had been moribund in the United States since the 1970s and was being rolled back in Germany. Yet 15 per cent of the world's electricity still comes from nuclear power. Nuclear power brings with it certain advantages.
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The nuclear energy process takes place inside a reactor. The process is similar to that of other thermal power plants, but in this case the heat is produced by a controlled nuclear fission chain reaction, either of uranium or plutonium. This reaction involves an element, such as uranium or plutonium, being hit by neutrons and splitting at the atomic level. The result of the fission of these large, heavy atoms are the creation of new, smaller atoms as byproducts, radiation and more neutrons. Those neutrons speed out and strike other uranium/plutonium atoms, creating a chain reaction. The chain reaction is controlled by some form of neutron moderators, which varies with the design of the reactor. Examples include graphite rods and simple water. Once the heat has been released in the reaction, it is used to convert water into steam, the steam turns the blades of a turbine, and this in turn runs the generator.
Advantage: Zero Emissions
Nuclear energy does not involve burning fossil fuels. In fact, under normal operating circumstances it does not release any air pollutants at all. In this respect, it is as clean as solar, wind, geothermal and hydropower, emits no carbon emissions, and could be considered part of a larger solution to global warming.
Advantage: Energy Independence
Nuclear fuels are derived from uranium and plutonium. Uranium is available is plentiful in the United States, and plutonium is created as a byproduct of the nuclear fission process (see below). Replacing oil and natural gas burning power plants with nuclear power plants would therefore be helping with achieving energy independence. Indeed, France gets more than three-quarters of its electricity from nuclear power exactly because of a nuclear-based national energy independence policy.
Advantage: It's Safer
When it comes to nuclear power, accidents are always a serious risk. The newest designs, however, are all built around the concept of the negative feedback loop: in an accident, instead of circumstances reinforcing each other and causing a runaway chain reaction, the reactor is designed to grind to a halt and shut itself down. Of course, these designs are not foolproof, but compared to previous designs, they are much safer. The two major nuclear accidents were Three Mile Island, which took place in 1979 in a Generation II reactor built in 1970; and Chernobyl, which was built in 1977 on a Generation I design, and experienced an accident in 1986. Advances in design technology makes each successive generation of nuclear reactor safer than the one before it, although many older reactors continue to operate due to the high capital cost of replacement.
Advantage: Useful Byproducts
It is often claimed that nuclear power is renewable, and although this is not true, some types of nuclear power plant make their own fuel as a byproduct. Breeder type reactors are built to maximise the creation of certain radioactive byproducts, with the best-known example being the design that maximises plutonium output. Plutonium can be processed back into fuel for nuclear reactors. Other breeders make radioactive isotopes that are useful to medicine.
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