During the next five decades, humans are going to consume more energy than they have over the course of our entire recorded history. The levels of consumption for fossil fuels give us a window of 60 years or less with currently known and expected resource discovery to find a new way to produce power. If we cannot replace all of our fossil fuels with renewables, then this fact will force a lifestyle change on everyone.
Even with hydropower and geothermal taking the lead for new electricity generation, the options for installing new capacity remain limited. Measures that prevent the consumption of natural gas, oil, or coal reduce the number of construction efforts that become possible in some countries.
Those issues are the reason behind a resurgence in the popularity of nuclear energy. This industry is one of the youngest ones operating in the power sector of our economy, providing a stable source of electricity and plenty of benefits with relatively few problems to manage.
These are the advantages and disadvantages of nuclear energy to review when evaluating this subject.
List of the Advantages of Nuclear Energy
1. Nuclear energy provides an enormous capacity.
When you have only one kilogram of 4% enriched fuel-grade uranium, then it can release the equivalent of 100 tons of high-grade coal. That means it can also replace about 60 tons of oil consumption once a facility goes online. It is just as stable as the electricity and energy generated by fossil fuels while offering a powerful resource for a baseline product that works with the grids all over the world.
2. We can reuse the fuel from nuclear energy projects.
One of the most common fuels that we use in a nuclear energy project is called Uranium-235. When we consume this element for energy, it does not entirely expire when placed in the nuclear reactor. It is possible for facilities to reuse it again after generation. When we consume fossil fuels, the slag or ash that remains is generally not well-suited for any other project. As we transition to a future that works with closed fuel cycles, then there is the possibility that this technology will generate zero waste in the future.
Another option with this advantage is called thorium. This spent waste comes from the leftovers of the reaction and the heavy water created. Instead of placing the leftovers into a holding facility, we can process it to continue using what we already have to reduce the need for future uranium mining.
3. This technology helps us to start reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
Any project that we start will consume fossil fuels at some level. The building materials, refining processes, and transportation networks needed to create a nuclear energy facility will produce greenhouse gas emissions during the creation process. Once we bring the power generators online, the rapid development of this resource can start reducing our emissions footprint without compromising the amount of power we can access.
When we look at the data from only Europe, this technology is responsible for a 700 million ton reduction of carbon dioxide emissions when compared to fossil fuels. If you add all of Russia into that figure, another 210 million tons of CO2 doesn’t reach our atmosphere. That’s why an emphasis on nuclear energy and its benefits can make a lot of sense for the developed world.
4. Nuclear energy provides countries with an economic boost.
Nuclear energy may not be the most influential component of the American economy, but it is an essential sector for most countries around the world. When there is dynamic development in this sector, then the government can ensure some of the basic conditions that are necessary for energy independence and stable economic growth.
Nuclear power is cost-competitive with all other forms of electricity generation. The only exception to this advantage is in locations where a power plant has direct access to low-cost fossil fuels.
5. The facilities that produce nuclear energy are exceptionally reliable.
The first nuclear power plants that humans built had an expected lifespan of 40 to 50 years. As we have taken care of these facilities and figured out how to maximize their production levels, we have come to discover that this estimate was only 50% of what the technology could provide. Using our current figures of uranium, there is enough product available right now to handle our existing energy needs for more than a century.
New technologies that allow us to recycle the fuel coming from nuclear energy could possibly extend this benefit even further.
6. Nuclear energy is a safe resource to use.
One of the primary reasons people shy away from the idea of using nuclear energy is the threat of radiation. When you say the word “Chernobyl,” then the haunting pictures of radioactive fallout come to mind. The reality of this industry is that it is very safe. It has one of the lowest mortality rates in the world for every 1 trillion kilowatts it generates when compared to other fuel resources.
When you compare coal-fired energy to nuclear options, then the fossil fuel causes 20,000 times more fatalities for every 1 trillion kilowatts generated. Even eco-friendly options like solar energy have a rate that is twice as much as this industry offers. That’s why it is often in the discussion for a new energy resource for communities that need more electricity.
7. The cost of nuclear energy is manageable for most countries.
If we were to develop nuclear energy in the same way that we’re working with renewables like wind or solar, then the costs would be almost equal. The estimated cost of a new nuclear facility in the United States is approximately $9 billion. Once that generator comes online, then the ongoing expenses are about 20% lower than what you would find with a fossil fuel facility with a similar output.
Nuclear energy only has about 15% of its total expenses in the front-end costs of a new facility. When you compare that to natural gas (87%) or coal (78%), then the expenses are manageable over time for most developed countries.
8. Nuclear energy is a proven and reliable resource.
Over 30 different countries are currently using nuclear energy to meet their power generation needs. About 10% of the total electricity that we produce each year comes from this industry. Americans have a rate that is double the worldwide average without a significant incident except for the Three Mile Island story.
There are five countries (Belgium, Slovakia, Ukraine, Hungary, and France) that receive their primary energy from nuclear power.
9. This energy resource provides us with a highly efficient source of energy.
When we can control a nuclear energy reaction correctly, then the process has the capability of generating power for electricity generation for up to 36 months. That means this resource is up to 8,000 times better from an efficiency standpoint than the traditional fossil fuels that we consume every day. Even when we make improvements to our traditional technology, like clean coal or biomass, the efficiency ratings do not come anywhere near what a nuclear reactor provides when it goes online.
You also have the benefit with nuclear energy in that it can operate at any time of day. That means it as efficiency superiority over most renewables, including wind and solar.
10. The density of nuclear power is one of the highest ratings in the world.
The amount of fuel that is required for nuclear energy to be generated is incredibly small compared to other forms of energy production. According to Atomic Insights, uranium provides 16,000 times more electricity than coal does when compared in a pound-for-pound manner. When comparing new technologies to perform nuclear fission or fusion, the comparison rate may be more than 2 million to 1. The ratio of nuclear reactions to chemical reactions is closer to 10 million to 1.
11. We can use nuclear energy in a variety of ways.
The primary use of nuclear power is usually for electricity generation, but there are a variety of methods and applications that benefit from this technology. This advantage is due to the stability of the energy created from the reaction since it can cover massive distances. Even though the United States loses trillions of BTUs through electrical transmissions, we can supply rural areas with a significant source of power so that they can meet a variety of needs.
We have even tested the use of nuclear reactors in outer space. The U.S. tested the SNAP-10A reactor in orbit for 43 days in 1965. New technologies suggest that this resource could be a power source for engines in the same way that we use them in some submarines and other naval vessels.
List of the Disadvantages of Nuclear Energy
1. There is always the threat of an accident when working with nuclear energy.
When the incident at Chernobyl occurred, modern estimates suggest that up to 30,000 people were killed in the initial fallout and the aftermath of radiation settling into the ground. About 3 million people in the region still struggle with health problems because of their exposure during this incident. It is a problem that can exist for multiple generations. Another incident occurred in Japan after a tsunami overwhelmed a coastal nuclear facility.
The United States has not been immune to this disadvantage either. There have been over 50 accidents at nuclear reactors that have either caused more than $50,000 in damages or involved a fatality. The Three Mile Island accident involved a partial meltdown of Reactor #2 and a radiation leak near Harrisburg, resulting in a cleanup cost that totaled more than $1 billion and required about 15 years of work to complete.
2. The uranium needed for nuclear energy can also become a weapon.
We can turn nuclear energy into a devastating weapon that can haunt countries and communities for generations afterward. The United States is the only country that has unleashed this hell during a time of conflict, dropping weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki as a way to end World War II immediately. Those bombs took hundreds of thousands of lives, and it left fallout issues like cancer and birth defects in those population centers for decades.
Today’s nuclear weapons are 3,000 times more powerful than what Americans developed with their allies in the 1940s. The largest weapon ever detonated using this technology produced 5.3 megatons of energy. This disadvantage means that we must become proactive about the ways that we guard its use so that it cannot fall into the hands of someone or a group who would use it for mass murder.
3. There is a waste issue to consider with nuclear energy.
Nuclear energy offers the advantage of being a clean-burning source of energy. It also creates radioactive waste that is lethal to the environment and hazardous to people. If this waste is not disposed of correctly, then the harm it causes may last for thousands of years in some habitats. In the United States, losses that are immediately associated with the accommodation of nuclear waste materials are estimated to be a minimum of $38 billion. Politico reports that the expenses could be as high as $65 billion.
4. Exposure to nuclear materials or uranium can create health problems.
The issue with nuclear energy is that it produces ionizing radiation as one of its side effects. Although these particles and waves occur in nature, the background exposure levels are much less than what you would receive when getting an x-ray. If an accident occurs, then the health impact on humans is immediate. The thyroid is especially sensitive to fallout exposure, and Cs-137 can have external or internal triggers that can cause problems. This disadvantage is the reason why you see workers in these facilities wearing an extensive amount of protective gear whenever they need to be around the equipment.
5. Nuclear energy does not provide us with a renewable energy resource.
Although nuclear energy is not always classified in this manner, it is closer to a fossil fuel than it is a renewable power resource. We need to have uranium available for these facilities to operate, and it must be refined to a level that makes it useful for electricity generation. New facilities can consume thorium too, but this approach still forces us to be using a natural resource to create what we need.
We must find new reserves of uranium at some point to continue growing the nuclear power industry. There might be more time to find replacement options than coal or natural gas, but the clock is still ticking. The United States has an estimated 60 million pounds that are usable, but some countries have less than 20 years of product available to them.
6. There are long-term storage costs to consider with nuclear power.
It might only cost $9 billion to build a new nuclear energy facility in the United States, but the American taxpayer is also managing a $38 billion annual bill to store the waste that these plants produce. That figure includes 38 states of management, so the expense is likely higher than $50 billion when all of the activities are brought into the figure.
What makes this disadvantage such a problem is that there are starts and stops that occur in the industry. The American government spent $15 billion to develop a nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada, but it has never used it. Power utilities were also promised that the Department of Energy would start collecting their waste in 1998 – a promise that now has a $23 billion liability.
7. Uranium mining is necessary to support the nuclear energy industry.
It is not a clean process that we use to mine and refine uranium. There are more than 1,000 holes drilled to look for this natural resource in the United States each year. It costs about $200 million to produce around 2.5 million pounds of usable product, which means the harvesting expenditures are much higher than they are for coal or natural gas. The most popular method is called in-situ leach mining, which is responsible for 45% of the industry. About 20% of the mines use the open pit method, creating an entirely new set of environmental issues that require management.
8. Inefficient nuclear energy transmissions generate a significant loss profile.
To prevent electricity dissipation, high-voltage, low-loss transmission lines must be installed to support the nuclear energy industry. This addition to a network or grid comes at a higher cost when compared to the standard low-voltage transmission lines that experience higher levels of loss.
India can experience losses as high as 30% from electricity sent through the standard distribution grid when transmission issues combine with theft. In the United States, electricity losses can be as high as 13% for nuclear energy because the correct infrastructure is not in place.
9. We do not have a Plan B for when nuclear energy is no longer viable.
Even though we are stockpiling resources around the world to generate electricity, the nuclear energy industry is far behind what coal, oil, and natural gas producers are offering. If Americans need to replace all of the operating facilities that use this technology, then the expense would be about 25% of the current national debt. That financial figure is an unreasonable expectation to put onto future generations. Since we have about 50 years to figure things out, now is the time that we need to become active in saving our societies and our planet.
10. It can take a long time to build a new nuclear facility.
The average amount of time that it takes to build a new nuclear facility is 14.5 years. That includes the time at the planning phase to the moment it comes online. At the same time, about 7 million people die from pollution-related causes each year. 90% of those fatalities are directly connected to the combustion needed for energy. If we would switch our systems to nuclear, there would still be 93 million people who die before everything could become usable.
That long time lag between planning and operation is often why countries decide to fund fossil fuel plants or look at the idea of renewables. It is much easier to obtain construction permits and bring those facilities online.
There are certainly some dangers to consider when using nuclear power. The threats of radiation exposure and environmental damage are costly when they occur. Some people would say that we’ve been lucky to only experience a handful of severe incidents that have cost a lot of lives and created exclusion zones. The issue with nuclear weapons is also one to consider with this technology.
At the same time, nuclear power is one of the most efficient methods we have today to produce electricity. It has a better cost profile than most other resources, and this option reduces the number of greenhouse gases we release to the atmosphere each year.
The advantages and disadvantages of nuclear energy present a risk-reward scenario. If we are willing to be proactive with the ways that we protect society from a dangerous incident, then there is a powerful method of electricity generation that will take our societies safely into the future.
Keith Miller has over 25 years experience as a CEO and serial entrepreneur. As an entreprenuer, he has founded several multi-million dollar companies. As a writer, Keith's work has been mentioned in CIO Magazine, Workable, BizTech, and The Charlotte Observer. If you have any questions about the content of this blog post, then please send our content editing team a message here.