One of my great loves when talking about living green, is the use of renewable energy sourcs. There are three different major types of energy sources used in the world today: fossil fuel energy (like coal, oil, and natural gas–which aren’t renewable), what we traditionally call renewable energy ( like wind, geothermal, hydropower, solar ), and nuclear energy.
No matter what type of energy source you use, there are important considerations to make when deciding to utilize it. So today I will discuss nuclear energy, how it’s created, advantages and disadvantages, and potential consequences of its use.
The Breakdown of Nuclear Energy
Before discussing the details of the types of nuclear energy, we should probably explain how nuclear energy is created.
The premise of nuclear energy is that everything around us consists of microscopic matter called atoms. An atom is the very smallest form of matter that can not be broken down any further by chemical means.
Atoms contain protons, neutrons, electrons, and a nucleus. A nucleus is the very center of an atom. Protons and neutrons hang out here. Outside the nucleus are orbital “rings” where the electrons hang out.
Origins of Nuclear Energy: Fission and Fussion
In a large atom, the nucleus can be split in two by hitting the atom with a neutron. This is called nuclear fission. When they split, there is usually a larger part of the mass and a smaller part of the mass that’s left behind.
It was discovered that when splitting the nucleus of these large atoms ( like Uranium or Plutonium ), a certain part of the larger mass piece is converted into pure energy.
When we discovered this energy, using Einsteins E = MC^2, where M is the mass and C is the speed of light, we discovered that this energy could be harnessed and used as a powerful weapon.
During World War II, Americans used that energy to create nuclear atomic bombs that devestated Nagasaki and Hiroshima in Japan. It is essentially what ended WWII.
After the war, that energy was put to use in other more constructive ways as they found that nuclear energy could run for extremely long periods of time without having to replenish the energy supply. For example, you could run a submarine for a year without refueling. Most of the nuclear reactors in our country today are fission reactors.
Where fission is the splitting of a large atom to create energy, fussion is the combining of two small atoms to create energy ( like hydrogen or helium ). The heavier atoms it produces creates energy. Fusion occurs naturally in our atmosphere. It is the energy that powers the sun and all other suns like ours.
However, it was discovered that this energy can also be harnessed, and it can be turned into a powerful weapon called a hydrogen bomb. Nuclear experts state that fussion is a more powerful energy source than fission though.
In comparison, dropping the atomic bombs during WWII killed over 200,000 people in Japan, decimated everything within a 1 mile radius from impact, with life-long radioactive side effects that have shortened people’s lives over time with cancers and birth defects. However, it is estimated that dropping a hydrogen bomb would be 1,000 times more severe. The US tested a hydrogen bomb in 1954 and found that it produces a bigger explosion, which means the shock waves, heat, radiation, and devastating effects would be much greater.
At this point, nuclear power plants do not have the ability to safely create energy from fusion reactions due to its extreme instability. However, scientists and experts keep studying and testing in hopes that one day we will be able to create a nuclear reactor that has the ability to harness nuclear fussion. Hopes are high in France this year as they begin building an expirimental nuclear reactor that may be able to do the job. Guess we will see… ?
Disadvantages of Nuclear Energy
As we all know, and have already touched on, when a nuclear fision reactions occurs, it breaks the atom into two parts, which we call fission byproducts or ‘used fuel’. The problem is that most of these waste products happen to be radioactive.
As we all know, radiation can be harmful if exposed to in large amounts. This means that those who work in close proximity to nuclear substances have a higher chance of being exposed to the harmful effects of radiation. Not to mention the fact that nuclear energy is highly explosive.
One of the concerns with nuclear plants that people fear is what if an accident, explosion, or something crazy like that happens in a nuclear plant today? How far reaching will those effects be?
A few examples of disasterous nuclear plant accidents that have already occurred in the world today happened in Chernobyl, USSR in 1985 and in Fukishima, Japan following a catastrophic 9.0 magnitude earthquake and tsuanmi in 2011. Those communities are still reaping the negative side effects from the radiation exposure to this day.
In high doses of these radioactive wastes, as in the case of a nuclear fallout, like the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the radiation effects were immediate AND long lasting. The immediate radiation effect is called Acute Radiation Syndrome.
Acute Radiation Syndrome occurs within 24 hours of close nuclear exposure and is characterized by bleeding under the skin ( also called purpura, or bruising ), internal bleeding of organs, fever (as the body cooks itself from the inside out), nausea, vomiting, severe hair loss, lack of apetite, mouth sores, falling blood counts which lead to rapid onset of infections, tremors, seizures, and rapid death.
Treatment of ARS is immediate and supportive, focusing on blood transfusions and antibiotics. People can survive ARS, but many die. Probability of death from ARS is directly proportionate to onset of gi symptoms. If GI symptoms occur within the first 4 hours, death is emminent.
Long term effects from radiation exposure are increased occurances of birth defects, mutations, blindness, and cancers (especially, but not limited to, leukemia).
The problem is that radiation is odorless and usually invisible, which means, you don’t know you’ve been exposed often times until it’s too late, and the effects from the exposure can take a while before they are evident to the naked eye.
The radiation problem means that great care needs to be taken in running nuclear plants, following correct protocols, and in proper handling and storing of nuclear waste materials. Storage of wastes is usually under water for the first five years, then dry ares in boreholes, deep geological disposals, mined repositories, etc until the waste material is safe for regular disposal. The safety of nuclear waste disposal depends on the type of atoms being split. However, radiation emittance decreases over time, most within ~50 years. After ~50 years, those wastes are usually safe to despose of without risk of harmful radiation side effects. Only ~3% of nuclear wastes have to be stored indefinitely.
Some of the other disadvantages of nuclear energy is the expensive initial onset of
Benefits of Nuclear Energy
With all that said, there are incredible benefits of using nuclear energy. The obvious that we’ve already mentioned is that this energy is sustainable, and the energy reaction lasts a long time!
Seriously. A really long, long time! (See chart)
Besides that, nuclear reactors all over the world use fission to create uninterupted electricity. We use nuclear energy for all sorts of things like human health (ie diagnostic and therapeutic medical purposes, radioisotopes that aid in measuring drugs, enzymes and hormones in the blood, steralization of medical supplies, etc), food and agriculture (ie Sterile Insect Technique), detecting leaks in pipelines, power sources ( ie for heart pacemakers, satillites, and beacons), archeological uses to determine age of all sorts of things both living and non-living, nuclear energy powers our rockets and space missions, electric cars, and various other products in the market today.
Not only does this type of energy last a long time, but the power behind nuclear reactions are so strong, they have the potential to provide energy needs to a larger population of people at the same time.
That is incredible, and with the human population growth and the growth of cities around the world, it makes this energy source appealing. Harnessed correctly and safely, nuclear energy is amazing!
One of the most greatest advantages of nuclear energy though is the fact that nuclear power plants create renewable CLEAN energy.
That’s right! Nuclear energy does NOT pollute the air nor does it create greenhouse gases. This means that it contributes minimally towards global warming.
Also, nuclear plants do not alter the environment around them when using nuclear energy correctly and safely. No smog is created with nuclear plants, the only outpour from the top of nuclear plants is clean water in the form of steam that doesn’t harm the environment.
Furthermore, fussion nuclear energy is even more promising as it is the cheapest energy to produce and the byproduct of fussion is helium, which is safe and non-toxic. Nuclear fussion also has the potential to provide a truly UNLIMITED fuel source with no other energy sources needed to create the energy supply ( fission uses minute amounts of fossil fuels to run parts of the nuclear plants ). Also, with fussion there is a less chance of chain-reactions occuring with the combining of atoms than when you are splitting atoms.
Nuclear energy is a power house for creating clean renewable energy, and therefore a viable option when choosing an energy source. Many advantagous benefits make this option appealing to every human on the planet, for various reasons. However, use of this energy is not without its risks.
With proper safety, handling and storage procedures, risk of disaster and/or exposure to toxic radiation waste is minimal. Not to mention, though radiation is a force to be carefully dealth with, don’t forget that all other energy sources also create toxic byproducts and/or wastes in some way or another, and have to be managed and safely disposed of as well. So this alone should not rule out nuclear energy as a viable energy option.
In ending, I look forward to seeing where nuclear fussion energy takes us.
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