Nuclear energy is rapidly becoming the most popular, cost-efficient, clean energy source available in the United States, the leading country in nuclear power. Although hydroelectric, solar, geothermal and wind energy systems are safer and completely renewable, these power structures cannot currently provide sufficient electricity to the entire country. Each of these technologies is limited by geographic location; however, following proper safety precautions, nuclear power plants can be built almost anywhere there is enough open land. The benefits of using nuclear energy, combined with the safety measures designed and monitored by the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission outweigh the potential risks the production of nuclear power may present.
Nuclear energy is produced through the fission of uranium atoms. The nucleus of U-235 is unstable and breaks down, releasing its neutrons which then collide with the nuclei of other atoms, releasing the neutrons from those atoms as well. This process produces constant heat as the unstable uranium atoms move and collide in an infinite chain of chemical reactions (Electric Power Generation, 2012). The heat produced from this fission warms water flowing around the reactor vessel, producing steam which spins a turbine to produce electricity that can be harnessed and transported for use. The steam is then recaptured and changed back into water to repeat the cycle of chemical reactions.
Nuclear energy currently provides approximately 20% of the United States’ electricity, with some states utilizing up to 80% nuclear energy for their power needs. Nuclear energy is the most cost-efficient energy source, costing only $2.19 per kilowatt-hour, compared to coal at $3.23, natural gas at $4.51, and petroleum at $21.56 per kilowatt-hour. Nuclear power plants are also emission-free, producing 63.3% of clean energy, more than solar, hydro, geothermal, and wind energy combined (Nuclear Energy Institute, 2012). Although uranium is not a renewable energy source, it is a self-sustaining fuel source: once the chemical reactions begin they self-perpetuate the chemical reactions indefinitely, creating an infinite energy source from a relatively small amount of fuel.
When compared to the cost and renewability of coal, gas and petroleum and the efficiency of solar, hydro, geothermal, and wind energies, nuclear power outshines its competitors; yet, the risks associated with the use of radioactive materials prevent nuclear power from being fully utilized. Two significant historic events cloud the nuclear energy field with fear and represent the real risk of nuclear power usage: the meltdowns at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania and Chernobyl, Ukraine in the former Soviet Union. In 1979, Unit 2 of the Three Mile Island power plant experienced a core meltdown which, although it did not cause any fatalities, took many years to clean up and ignited the fear of atomic power plants (Three Mile Island Emergency, 2007). The incident at Chernobyl in 1986 was much larger and lead to many deaths and thousands of cases of cancer. Twenty-six years after the meltdown, an 18-mile radius around the former power plant remains closed due to radioactive by-products and wastes (Chernobyl, 2012). Although the United States’ modern nuclear power plant design is much safer than the Chernobyl and Three Mile Island reactors, the risk of radiation exposure remains. The storage of the radioactive by-products and wastes is another drawback to nuclear power; these materials must be kept contained for years until the radioactive materials can deteriorate and be safe for exposure.
Many factors must be considered before building a nuclear power plant. The type of plant to build, a Pressurized Water Reactor or a Boiling Water Reactor, the safety of the future employees and residents, where the uranium supply will come from, and how to store and dispose of radioactive by-products and wastes are just a few of the important issues that must be taken into concern. The decommissioning of the plant must also be planned before construction and operation can begin. A plan to dismantle, store, or entomb the plant when it ceases operation must be made and finances must be set aside for the process (Students’ Corner, 2012).
Determining the location of the new plant is another extremely important aspect to consider when building a new nuclear power plant. It must be easily accessible to construction vehicles and future employees, but cannot be too close to any cities, in case of a nuclear emergency. The location must also be centralized and close enough to run power lines to transport the harnessed energy to the various cities.
Nuclear power is a cleaner, sustainable, more affordable energy supply than coal, gas, or petroleum and is not as dangerous as most people think. It is also much more efficient and widely available than solar, hydro, geothermal, and wind energies. It is important for people to know the facts about the risks posed by nuclear power plants and what to do in the event of a nuclear emergency in their area, but also that nuclear power plants are not something to be feared or fought, but in fact will help preserve the environment and save them money on their electric bill. Understanding that the benefits of nuclear power outweigh the risks will help citizens accept nuclear power as a quality energy source.
Dickinson College. (2007). Three Mile Island Emergency. Retrieved from http://www.threemileisland.org/virtual_museum/index.html
Nuclear Energy Institute. (2012). Electric Power Generation. Retrieved from http://www.nei.org/howitworks/electricpowergeneration/
Nuclear Energy Institute. (2012). Resources and Stats. Retrieved from http://www.nei.org/resourcesandstats/
Tennessee Valley Authority. (2012). Nuclear Energy. Retrieved from http://www.tva.com/power/nuclear/index.htm
United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission. (August 30, 2012). Backgrounder on Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant Accident. Retrieved from http://www.nrc.gov/reading-rm/doc-collections/fact-sheets/chernobyl-bg.html
United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission. (August 30, 2012). Map of Power Reactor Sites. Retrieved from http://www.nrc.gov/reactors/operating/map-power-reactors.html
United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission. (August 30, 2012). Students’ Corner. Retrieved from http://www.nrc.gov/reading-rm/basic-ref/students.html