Nuclear energy: could this piece of the climate puzzle help us move away from fossil fuels?

Nuclear energy: could this piece of the climate puzzle help us move away from fossil fuels?

Nuclear power already owns a fifth of electricity production in the United States, so it could probably help more to solve the climate crisis.

Washington D.C.- the climate The crisis is challenging us to figure out how to get rid of fossil fuels this decade, but one power generation workhorse is still hotly debated: nuclear power.

Nuclear energy already covers a fifth of the country’s electricity needs. © 123rf/ake1150

Nuclear power could be another piece of the climate puzzle, as it provides continuous power generation when renewables are unable to produce as much zappy juice.

So how do nuclear reactors provide electricity?

Well, uranium, a radioactive element, is enriched and formed into cakes which are packed into reactors. There they go through a chemical reaction that produces heat, which can turn water into steam.

That steam, in turn, is used to drive a turbine, and now you generate electricity, according to the US Energy Information Administration (EIA).

And the EIA shows that nuclear power, which generated 20% of the electricity in the United States in 2020, has existed in the country since World War II.

In 1942, a nuclear physicist named Dr. Enrico Fermi set off a controlled nuclear reaction under the University of Chicago football stadium.

Since then, nuclear power stations have sprung up all over the world, with the United Kingdom leading in terms of production, followed by the United States.

But even as the world receives a wake up call of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that the transition from fossil fuels must happen now, new nuclear projects are few and far between.

Nuclear power plants have no direct CO2 emissions.

Nuclear power plants have no direct CO2 emissions. © 123RF/askoldsb

There are good reasons for using nuclear reactors to generate electricity, such as how they can generate electricity day or night when other renewable sources cannot.

If the wind isn’t blowing or the sun isn’t shining on the solar panels, nuclear power can and does power power grids.

Its carbon footprint is also very low, even taking into account the emissions from building a nuclear power plant and mining and transporting its uranium fuel.

Research published in Nature Energy looked at lifetime CO2 emissions from wind, solar and nuclear power, and found that all three are surprisingly low.

But nuclear reactors are a seriously controversial topic, with critics pointing the finger at nuclear waste and the potential for repeat accidents like those at the power plants in Fukushima, Japan, Three Mile Island in the United States or the mother of all nuclear disasters – Chernobyl in Ukraine. , where a meltdown left behind a radioactive wasteland that we still worry about today.

And real geographic risks mean that nuclear power cannot be built everywhere.

Places like the San Andreas fault line in California would be a terrible idea for new reactors, because you don’t want an earthquake to damage a reactor and cause its cooling pools or radioactive fuel to spill out.

This fuel produces radioactive waste when burned, which can be dangerous to us for thousands of years.

But, as YouTuber and independent researcher Kyle Hill explains, the most dangerous waste is stored at nuclear power plants in ceramic and concrete drums that are actually safe enough to store outdoors and can withstand a freight train. But far from all waste is safely stored, and scientists have sounded the alarm about some old containers that were already leaking.

“It’s a societal problem passed down to us from our parents’ generation,” Gerald S. Frankel, materials scientist at Ohio State University, told Chemical & Engineering News in 2020. “And we give more or less to our children.”

Until the solutions to at least some of these problems are properly implemented, the debate around nuclear energy will continue.

Comments are closed.