What Is Nuclear Energy?
Nuclear Energy has been recognised lately as a final and ultimate alternative to fossil-fuel energy. Let’s take a closer look at the process which actually is detrimental to the whole production. Hard as it may be to believe, nuclear energy is the energy contained in an atom’s nucleus. Two nuclear processes can be used to release that energy to do work: fission and fusion. Nuclear fission is the splitting of atomic nuclei, and nuclear fusion is the fusing, or combining, of atomic nuclei. A by-product of both fission and fusion is the release of enormous amounts of energy. Nuclear energy for commercial use is produced by splitting atoms in nuclear reactors, which are devices that produce controlled nuclear fission. Both the reactions are highly reactive and produce Energy of unthinkable quantities. The nuclear fuel cycle begins with the mining and processing of uranium, its transportation to a power plant, its use in controlled fission, and the disposal of radioactive waste. Ideally, the cycle should also include the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel, and it must include the decommissioning of power plants. Since much of a nuclear power plant becomes radioactive over time from exposure to radioisotopes, disposal of radioactive wastes eventually involves much more than the original fuel.
Problems with the Nuclear Fuel
Uranium mines and mills produce radioactive waste that can expose mining workers and the local environment to radiation. Radioactive dust produced at mines and mills can be transported considerable distances by wind and water, so pollution can be widespread. Tailings— materials removed by mining but not processed—are generally left at the site, but in some instances radioactive mine tailings were used in foundations and other building materials, contaminating dwellings.Uranium-235 enrichment and the fabrication of fuel assemblies also produce radioactive waste that must be carefully handled and disposed of. Site selection and construction of nuclear power plants are also highly controversial points. The bottom line is that nuclear energy production comes with its own drawbacks. The environmental review process is extensive and expensive, often centering on hazards related to such events as earthquakes. The power plant or reactor is the site most people are concerned about because it is the most visible part of the cycle. It is also the site of past accidents, including partial meltdowns that have released harmful radiation into the environment.
Waste disposal is controversial because no one wants a nuclear waste disposal facility nearby. The problem is that no one has yet figured out how to isolate nuclear waste for the millions of years that it remains hazardous. Scientists have tried to isolate a few processes which might be feasible as well as economical however the environmental degradation comes into picture. Nuclear power plants have a limited lifetime, usually estimated at only several decades, but decommissioning a plant or modernizing it is a controversial part of the cycle and one with which we have little experience. For one thing, like nuclear waste, contaminated machinery must be safely disposed of or securely stored indefinitely. In addition to the above list of hazards in transporting and disposing of radioactive material, there are potential hazards in supplying other nations with reactors. Terrorist activity and the possibility of irresponsible people in governments add risks that are not present in any other form of energy production.
Another argument against nuclear power is that some nations may use it as a path to nuclear weapons. The World War has already witnessed the mass destruction of such an attempt. It is highly possible to reprocess used nuclear fuel from a power plant to produce plutonium that can be used to make nuclear bombs. There is concern that rogue nations with nuclear power could divert plutonium to make weapons, or may sell plutonium to others, even terrorists, who would make nuclear weapons.
Although there is vigorous, ongoing debate about the nature and extent of the relationship between radiation exposure and cancer mortality, most scientists agree that radiation can cause cancer. Some scientists believe that there is a linear relationship, such that any increase in radiation beyond the background level will produce an additional hazard. Others believe that the body can handle and recover from low levels of radiation exposure but that health effects (toxicity) become apparent beyond some threshold. Given the amount of production we need to meet the rising demands, it seems that the threshold will have to be compromised. The verdict is still open on this subject, but it seems prudent to take a conservative viewpoint and accept that there may be a linear relationship.
As of now, nuclear power provides about 17% of the world’s electricity and 4.8% of the total energy. Worldwide, there are 436 operating nuclear power plants. Nations differ greatly of energy they obtain from these plants. France ranks first, with about 80% of its electricity produced by nuclear energy. Most of the world’s nuclear power plants are in North America, Western Europe, Russia, China, and India.
The International Atomic Energy Agency, which promotes nuclear energy, says a total of just 4.7 million tons of “identified” conventional uranium stock can be mined economically. If we switched from fossil fuels to nuclear today, that uranium would run out in four years. Even the most optimistic estimate of the quantity of uranium ore would last only 29 years.
Nevertheless, nuclear energy as a power source for electricity is now being seriously evaluated. Its benefits have also begun to surface-
(1) It does not contribute to potential global warming through release of carbon dioxide and other harmful gases
(2) It does not cause the kinds of air pollution or emit sulphates and nitrates that cause acid rain. Breeder reactors for commercial use would greatly increase the amount of fuel available for nuclear plants, that nuclear power plants are safer than other means of generating power. And hence it’s even the quantity which will matter on top of quality. The argument assumes that if we standardize nuclear reactors and make them safer and smaller, nuclear power could provide much of our electricity in the future, although the possibility of accidents and the disposal of spent fuel remain concerns.
The argument against nuclear power is based on political and economic considerations as well as scientific uncertainty about safety issues. Furthermore, uranium ore to fuel conventional nuclear reactors is limited. The International Nuclear Energy Association estimates that at the 2004 rate of use, there would be 85 years of uranium fuel from known reserves, but if nations attempt to build many new power plants in the next decade, known reserves of uranium ore would be used up much more quickly. Nuclear power can thus be a long-term energy source only through the development of breeder reactors.
We have a good deal of knowledge about nuclear energy and nuclear processes. Still, people remain suspicious and in some cases frightened by nuclear power—in part because of the value we place on a quality environment and our perception that nuclear radiation is toxic to that environment. It may not be over a shorter duration but over time it might even lead to death of our primary food source- plants. As a result, the future of nuclear energy will depend in part on how much risk is acceptable to society. It will also depend on research and development to produce much safer nuclear reactors. Fool-proof waste management and high security at the reserves would certainly help in that direction. Nuclear energy may indeed be one answer to some of our energy needs, but with nuclear power comes a level of responsibility not required by any other energy source.