The Debate Over Nuclear Energy - dummies

By Alecia M. Spooner

As environmental scientists and the industrial world look for ways to reduce the dependence on fossil fuels, nuclear energy seems to provide a potential solution. As with any fuel source, though, using nuclear energy has pros and cons.

One of the biggest advantages in using nuclear power (especially compared to some of the other alternative energy sources) is the ability to steadily produce large amounts of energy. Nuclear power produces high amounts of energy at a steady rate, so it can address many of the energy needs currently being met by coal.

Additionally, shifting some energy dependence away from fossil fuels and onto nuclear energy may reduce international tensions as petroleum resources shrink.

The cons of using nuclear energy include the following:

  • Finding safe long-term storage for waste is vital. Nuclear energy generation results in radioactive waste that needs safe, secure, and long-term storage.

  • Uranium mining causes environmental damage. Like many mining activities, extracting uranium ores leaves waste material at the site and requires large amounts of fossil fuels to operate mining machinery and transport uranium for processing.

  • People fear nuclear accidents. Nuclear meltdowns are many people’s biggest fear about nuclear energy. Nuclear power plants don’t explode like nuclear bombs do; however, if the plant’s cooling systems aren’t functioning properly, the reactor core becomes too hot and begins to release the radioactive byproducts of nuclear fission into the atmosphere, water, and soil.

In 1986, a nuclear reactor in Chernobyl, Ukraine, experienced a meltdown while testing its cooling system (which failed). The result was the release of huge amounts of radioactive material into the atmosphere; additionally, portions of the plant caught fire and unleashed contaminated smoke.

Much of Europe and the Soviet Union were affected by the radiation because weather patterns spread the emissions across the continent. Regions in and around Chernobyl are still highly toxic and uninhabited.

In March 2011, following an earthquake and tsunami in Japan, the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant experienced a cooling system failure and a meltdown that released radioactive material into the ocean and atmosphere. Considered the largest nuclear accident since Chernobyl, the effects of this event are still being studied.

Many environmental scientists see nuclear energy as a useful tool to transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy in the future. However, research and technology is necessary to provide the safest, cleanest, and most efficient methods of capturing energy from nuclear reactions.