As climate change continues to affect international health and safety, the demand for feasible clean energy solutions like nuclear power has surged.
But how does nuclear energy stack up against other renewable energy sources? Is it the future of carbon-free energy, or is it too risky and costly? Below, we’ll explore the answers to these questions and more.
- Nuclear energy is produced by breaking bonds that hold atomic nuclei together.
- Nuclear power plants can produce large amounts of energy with minimal carbon emissions.
- Compared to other renewable energy sources, nuclear power is more expensive to make but is more reliable and able to adapt to large-scale needs.
To understand nuclear energy, it’s necessary to understand atoms and their function. Atoms are tiny particles that are invisible to the eye. They come together to make up solids, liquids, and gasses with unique properties. Atoms comprise three types of particles:
- Protons, which carry a positive electrical charge,
- Neutrons, which carry no electrical charge (making them “neutral”), and
- Electrons, which carry a negative electrical charge.
Each atom has a core, known as a nucleus, that contains protons and neutrons. This core is surrounded by electrons, which help atoms bond together.
An enormous amount of energy can be found in the bonds that hold the nucleus together. This nuclear energy can be released when bonds are broken through nuclear fission at nuclear power plants. Once obtained, nuclear energy can be used in electricity generation. However, new research on using nuclear systems to heat homes, clean water, and more is underway.
Advantages of Nuclear Energy
Nuclear energy is most renowned for producing low-carbon electricity in high volumes. As climate change continues to demand new ways to generate renewable energy, nuclear technologies take center stage as a primary power source. Some of its advantages include the following:
- High Energy Density: Nuclear power plants create enough clean energy to power entire cities easily and regularly.
- Low Operating Costs: The amount it costs to operate nuclear plants is lower than nearly all fossil fuel producers and has a low risk of inflation-induced changes. Maintaining and running a nuclear power plant costs even less than intermittent renewable energy sources like wind and solar power.
- Low Greenhouse Gas Emissions: Nuclear fuel and power are low-carbon energy sources because nuclear fission does not produce large amounts of CO2. As a result, nuclear reactors and the energy they produce are essential parts of meeting climate change goals.
Disadvantages of Nuclear Energy
While there are many benefits associated with nuclear energy, there are also some potential downsides. Some of the most common examples include:
- Waste Disposal: Operating nuclear power plants creates radioactive waste, which must be disposed of properly to avoid safety risks. However, researchers are developing new nuclear reactor systems and solutions to generate less nuclear waste in the future.
- Safety Concerns: Low-carbon energy options like nuclear energy may not produce carbon dioxide when produced or used, but they do produce waste and emissions during manufacturing. The 2011 Fukushima Daiichi Accident, in which a nuclear power plant was damaged by a large earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan, illustrates the potential unprecedented safety risks that may come with nuclear energy production.
- High Initial Capital Costs: It’s expensive to build new nuclear power plants; construction costs can account for around 50% or more of a plant’s economic liabilities. While maintenance costs are low, this initial investment deters some countries, like China and India, from relying more heavily on nuclear energy.
Comparison to Other Energy Sources
Nuclear energy systems are more efficient overall than other renewable and fossil fuel energy sources. Likewise, nuclear reactors offer a more stable option for generating electricity than things like wind power, which are subject to weather and climate. Let’s look at some ways nuclear power stands out from other energy sources.
Nonrenewable energy sources like fossil fuels are infamous for their carbon emissions and general environmental risks. However, these energy sources’ convenience and relatively low costs are major draws. In many countries, fossil fuels are the most accessible power source.
- Coal: Capital costs for coal plants are typically lower than those of nuclear reactors. The overall economics of coal production are subject to more change than nuclear energy, though, so it may not always be a less expensive option.
- Natural Gas: Gas-fired energy plants are usually significantly cheaper to create than nuclear power plants. Operating costs are often less expensive, though this can depend on available technology, customer demand, and resources.
- Oil: Petroleum and gasoline are popular options for fueling vehicles, machinery, and heating. But carbon emissions from burning oil and other fossil fuels account for around 60% of global greenhouse gas emissions. It also takes a significantly larger amount of oil to produce the same amount of energy that a small amount of uranium, which is used to create nuclear power, can.
Compared to other top renewable, clean energy sources, nuclear power is more reliable but more expensive. Still, many nuclear power systems are more durable and long-lasting than options like wind turbines.
- Solar Energy: Solar energy is cheap and easy to produce, especially since solar panels can be added to homes to produce even more power. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s 2022 Annual Energy Outlook, the cost of creating new nuclear energy farms would be about double the cost of investing in more solar energy.
- Wind Energy: Costs for wind power are declining with time, and wind turbines both on- and off-shore are relatively easy to finance and install. On-shore wind energy may be the cheapest option for renewable power, but it’s also arguably the most intermittent. Wind levels must be strong and consistent enough to regularly create energy, which isn’t possible in all areas.
- Hydro Energy: Hydropower can be more reliable than other clean energy sources, as it’s usually established in areas with large, flowing bodies of water. But not all areas have enough water to rely on hydro energy, limiting its reach.
Advantages vs. Disadvantages
The rise of nuclear power is a positive change, but there are some legitimate downsides to consider. Check out the table below to bring together all of the information we’ve discussed.
|Potential for cheaper solutions in the future||Potential accidents can be costly to clean up|
|Low operation costs||High initial investment|
|Avoids carbon emissions and furthering climate change||Creates radioactive nuclear waste|
|Sustainable way to generate power, leading to less waste||Uses more energy to produce nuclear power|
|Can be used to heat homes, fuel machinery, and more in the future||Accidents may cause environmental damage|
|Small amounts of uranium needed to produce large amounts of energy||Not accessible in all countries|
|Consistent and reliable|
Nuclear Energy and the Future
As the global demand for sustainable energy sources grows, we’ll likely see a steady increase in nuclear power reactors. But what does this say about what the future looks like?
The Role of Nuclear Energy in Meeting Energy Demands
The global reliance on fossil fuels is responsible for natural disasters, environmental damage, food shortages, and other consequences that threaten health and safety. But the simple truth is that moving beyond fossil fuels is difficult for countries with limited resources. This is especially pressing as the global population continues to grow.
Nuclear energy may be the only low-carbon source that can reliably meet global energy demands. Other sustainable energy sources can be more accessible and may also be used to support local communities. Still, nuclear power’s capacity factor allows it to engage in large-scale energy production more efficiently.
Technological Advances in Nuclear Energy
Researchers are actively exploring new opportunities to create advanced reactors that can produce energy in tandem with rising or falling demand. Changes like these are designed to make nuclear energy safer, more accessible, and more efficient.
Public Opinion and Acceptance
According to the Pew Research Center, public opinion in the U.S. surrounding nuclear power is mixed. Around a third of U.S. adults (35%) believe the federal government should actively encourage producing nuclear power, but around a quarter are against this change.
New conversations about nuclear power have surged following Russia’s military invasion of Ukraine, which may further affect public opinion. Overall, though, most Americans favor becoming carbon neutral. Public opinion may change over time to favor options like nuclear energy that promote this goal.
Nuclear energy may require a hefty initial investment, but its operating costs are low enough to make it a sustainable way to generate power. It’s a low-carbon energy source that’s more reliable than other energy sources, but it’s also not as accessible due to its high upfront cost.
More time and technological advancements are likely necessary to make nuclear energy the new “normal.” Still, as it stands, it’s a significant competitor for the most viable renewable energy source moving forward.