An Introduction to Nuclear Energy

We see the confused stares. Many of you may be curious as to what an introduction to “nuclear energy” is doing on an eco-conscious blog.  Let us put it in perspective…

While nuclear energy has long been touted as a no-go for environmentalists, some scientists now argue that nuclear energy is one of the most “carbon-free” sources of energy, as the fission process involved produces little to no greenhouse gas emissions. Want to learn more? We’ve compiled a brief introduction to nuclear energy, below.

What is Nuclear Energy?

Nuclear energy occurs through the fission process of atoms (when atoms split), which creates energy in the form of heat.

How Does Nuclear Energy Work?

When an atom splits, it produces heat (and therefore energy). Not only does the initial fission process create energy, but it also triggers a chain reaction among released neutrons, which repeat the process and generate even more energy.

In a nuclear power plant, the heat produced by fission is used to create steam, which turns a turbine and eventually produces electricity. The NRC, or Nuclear Regulatory Commission, regulates all nuclear power plants in the United States.

Is Nuclear Power “Greener” Than Traditional Energy Sources Such As Fossil Fuels?

There is a good deal of debate on this issue. One advantage of nuclear energy production is that it generates very few (or no) harmful greenhouse gases. Additionally, nuclear energy doesn’t produce two of the harmful chemicals responsible for acid rain – sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides.

Another advantage to nuclear energy is that it is not contingent upon weather or other external factors.  This gives nuclear energy a leg up over many other types of renewable energy such as solar, wind, or wave power, whose production is often governed by weather patterns, amount of sunlight, etc.

Nuclear energy production, however, still involves the mining of uranium, building of power plants, and other processes that do produce harmful carbon emissions. Additionally, nuclear energy does not generate nearly as much energy/heat as does the burning of traditional fossil fuels. Nuclear power plants also tend to be wildly expensive.

One final factor to take into consideration is the safety of nuclear power plants. Though there is always a “fear factor” involved in anything containing the word “nuclear,” it is important to note that, as technologies and safety precautions improve, serious nuclear power plant incidents are increasingly rare. The last US nuclear accident that resulted in a fatality occurred in 1988, twenty-five years ago.

Will nuclear energy be a viable source of renewable energy in the coming years? The answer at the moment appears to be “time will tell.”

Resources:

http://www.nature.com/climate/2008/0810/full/climate.2008.99.html

http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/the_green_lantern/2010/07/the_nuclear_option.html

http://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/index.cfm?page=nuclear_power_plants

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