Nuclear energy is one of the most challenging energy sources. For some, the dangers of nuclear power outweigh the benefits. For others, nuclear power appears to be the answer to a future free of carbon emissions.
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What is Nuclear Energy?
Nuclear energy is the energy stored in the nucleus of an atom. It can be extracted with the help of nuclear fission and fusion reactions.
Nuclear fission is a reaction in which neutrons hit an atom's nucleus, causing it to split into two or more nuclei and release a large amount of energy. The release of additional neutrons as the by-product can initiate a chain reaction.
Nuclear fusion occurs when light atomic nuclei fuse to form heavier nuclei at extremely high temperatures, releasing an enormous amount of energy.
A nuclear fusion reaction can release four million times more energy than fossil fuels and three to four times more than a nuclear fission reaction. The nuclear energy used worldwide to produce electricity today is generated by nuclear fission, while fusion-based electricity generation technology is still in the research and experimental development phase.
Challenges Faced By the Nuclear Industry
Over the long years of operation of numerous nuclear power plants worldwide, the industry has earned a reputation as one of the safest means to produce electricity. However, after the Chornobyl and Fukushima tragedy, the main environmental problems of nuclear energy began to be associated with a possible repetition of the disasters.
Even though the operation of a nuclear power plant is relatively inexpensive, huge funds are required to build a nuclear power plant. The World Nuclear Industry Status Report (WNISR) indicates that the average construction time for a nuclear power plant is almost ten years.
Nuclear fission reactors produce radioactive waste, which takes thousands of years to degrade to safe radiation levels. Nuclear waste is highly radioactive and extremely harmful.
Uranium mining and enrichment are harmful to the environment. Miners are exposed to radiation and nuclear waste during the exploration and extraction of radioactive elements.
It is quite difficult to create suitable conditions for the nuclear fusion reaction. For fusion to occur, nuclear reactors must operate at temperatures more than 100 million degrees Celsius. A significant amount of energy is consumed to achieve these conditions. As a result, fusion reactions consume more energy than they can produce.
Safety Measures at Nuclear Power Plants
One of the most significant elements of a nuclear power plant is its safety, ensuring that both employees and the environment are protected from radiation during regular operations and incidents.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Safety Standards and Rules contain a detailed description of the system of technical measures and organizational measures taken to ensure nuclear power plant safety during the design, construction, installation, start-up, operation, and decommissioning.
All these measures are necessary to guarantee that under all modes of operation and design basis accidents, exposure doses to personnel and the public, and concentrations of radioactive substances in the environment, will be at a reasonably low level and will not exceed the limits established by authoritative bodies.
Next-Generation Nuclear Technology
For more than five decades, the nuclear industry has been developing and refining nuclear technology. Next-generation nuclear reactors are being built to meet growing energy demand.
Small Modular Reactor
The small modular reactor (SMR) is the newest trend in the world of nuclear technology. It produces less energy than existing nuclear reactors at a significantly lower cost. They have an output range of 20–300 megawatts.
Small modular reactors are more adaptable than larger reactors. Projects requiring less energy may be better served by a single reactor, while those requiring more energy may benefit from numerous reactors.
Molten Salt Reactors
Molten salt reactors (MSRs) are viewed as a potential replacement for traditional water reactors since they are more efficient, can be used with various fuel cycles, and do not require solid fuel manufacturing. The working pressure in these reactors is lower, which reduces the chance of an accident.
Micro-reactors are less than one percent of the size of traditional nuclear reactors. They are small, portable nuclear power plants with outputs ranging from 1 to 10 megawatts.
Micro-reactors provide clean, carbon-free energy to remote communities since they can be easily carried, operated for weeks or months, and then moved to their next position.
Advanced reactors are either improved nuclear fission or fusion reactors. These reactors utilize less fuel, produce less waste, and are cost-effective.
Many industries use natural gas or coal to produce necessary heat levels. Advanced reactors that operate at high temperatures can replace this fossil fuel at the industrial level.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has recently authorized a new way to streamline advanced reactor licensing. It is anticipated that advanced reactors will eliminate security, economic, regulatory, and technical obstacles to the next generation of nuclear power.
Fast reactors are nuclear reactors that can keep their neutrons at high energy levels. With fast neutrons, maximum energy can be extracted from uranium's dominant isotope (U238), making nuclear power more sustainable.
Recent Breakthrough in Nuclear Fusion Energy
A controlled, sustained fusion reaction carried out by scientists at the Joint European Torus (JET) has surpassed the previous record for energy production.
In the fusion reactor's inner walls, beryllium and tungsten were utilized as a substitute for carbon. This innovation resulted in the production of 59 megajoules of energy in under five seconds, more than double the output of a similar experiment in 1997.
It is expected that the results of the JET experiment will form the foundation for future accomplishments of the International Fusion Experimental Reactor (ITER), which is the largest project in the field of nuclear fusion, worth over 20 billion dollars, being developed in France.
Future Prospects of Nuclear Energy
Energy security, climate change and energy demand are among the current world challenges that can be solved with the safe use of nuclear energy.
According to the International Energy Agency, global energy consumption will increase by 50% by 2030, with electricity demand doubling globally.
Fossil fuel use will be the primary driver of this growth, resulting in a polluted, expensive and unstable future.
Nuclear energy is affordable, reliable, and diverse, and is a promising electricity source that does not release any carbon into the atmosphere, making it an excellent alternative to fossil fuels. It is always improving to make it more sustainable and safe. Using this energy, we can progress toward a cleaner environment without harming our economy.
References and Further Readings
Amos, J. (2022). Major breakthrough on nuclear fusion energy [Online] BBC. Available at: https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-60312633 (Accessed on 12 May 2022).
Arostegui, D. A., & Holt, M. (2019). Advanced nuclear reactors: technology overview and current issues. Congressional Research Service Report for Congress, Washington, DC, Report (No. R45706). Available at: https://www.everycrsreport.com/reports/R45706.html
Black, G., Shropshire, D., & Araújo, K. (2021). Small modular reactor (SMR) adoption: Opportunities and challenges for emerging markets. Handbook of Small Modular Nuclear Reactors, 557-593. https://doi.org/10.1016/B978-0-12-823916-2.00022-9
Carpenter, M. (2021). Advancing Nuclear Technologies. [Online] Nuclear Energy Institute. Available at: https://www.nei.org/news/2021/advancing-nuclear-technologies (Accessed on 12 May 2022).
Langlois, L. (2013). IAEA Action Plan on nuclear safety. Energy Strategy Reviews, 1(4), 302-306. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.esr.2012.11.008
Schneider, M., Froggatt, A., Hazemann, J., Katsuta, T., Ramana, M. V., Rodriguez, J. C., & Stienne, A. (2019). The World Nuclear Industry Status Report. Available at: https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Ben-Wealer-2/publication/336870789_The_World_Nuclear_Industry_Status_Report_2019/links/5db7f69f92851c8180121201/The-World-Nuclear-Industry-Status-Report-2019.pdf