Opinion | Nuclear energy provides a greener future


Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Image of the Sequoyah Nuclear Power Plant near Chattanooga, Tennessee taken on Oct. 25, 2008. Columnist Aditya Sayal believes that nuclear energy is more efficient in making the environment better.

By Aditya Sayal, Columnist

When someone hears about nuclear energy, their immediate thought is often of the tragedy of Chernobyl. The casualties transcend past the deaths that occurred to the fact that it is now a place that will never be inhabited. However, one should realize why Chernobyl happened.

The 1986 accident at the nuclear power plant in Chernobyl occurred because of a severely flawed Soviet-era reactor design combined with human error. On top of this, the reactor built was an RBMK reactor which is a class of graphite-moderated nuclear power reactor that was rejected everywhere outside the Soviet Union.

All of this combined with operators who ran the plant without adequate safety precautions and improper communication was the cause of this accident.

With this knowledge, if someone were to suggest we use nuclear power instead of coal, oil or other sources to alleviate the current climate change situation, you would say no. You would never wish this upon anyone — the risk and damages could be irreparable.

Yet, the nuclear debate is not a disaster. The concerns are valid, but they result from decades of media and political fear-mongering. Ironically, the best way to fix climate change is by embracing nuclear power.

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To better understand nuclear power, one must understand how nuclear energy works and how it is different. Currently, we take fossil fuels and burn them to produce CO2. When these fossil fuels burn, we change which atoms are bonded to each other. We then proceed to harvest the energy that is released.

Nevertheless, in a nuclear reaction, we change the atoms themselves through a process called nuclear fission. Nuclear fission is the splitting of an atom’s nucleus into two or more smaller and lighter nuclei generating enormous energy.

To paint a clearer picture, nuclear power plants do the nuclear fission of uranium-235 because the forces are slightly weaker. When a free-moving neutron hits the atom uranium-235, the atom absorbs the neutron and creates an unstable uranium-236. Since this uranium-236 is unstable, the nuclear forces will weaken and cause the nucleons (protons and/or neutrons) to move apart.

While this happens, the electrical forces are increasing and stretching the nucleus into an oval shape to accommodate these nucleons moving apart. As the distance between the nucleus increases, the oval gets longer until the electrical forces are much higher than the nuclear forces and the nucleus splits into two.

This fission creates smaller nuclei, specifically krypton and barium. Additionally, it also creates three additional neutrons. However, the sum of these masses is less than the original. This is because the missing mass is converted into an enormous amount of energy, much more energy than could be created by simply burning fossil fuels.

Because nuclear energy does not use carbon-based fuel release, it barely produces any CO2. One might say, why not utilize wind or solar energy. For starters, the wind is not constant which eliminates the use of wind energy. As for solar, while the energy can be stored and used, one must realize that by the time the sun goes down, the need for electricity exponentially increases.

This can be observed in a graph called a duck curve which depicts the difference in electricity demand and the amount of available solar energy throughout the day.

Other risks associated with nuclear power involve storing nuclear waste, running out of supply of uranium and the spread of nuclear weapons. Some claim nuclear energy leaves immense nuclear waste that would have to be managed for thousands of years.

Yet, this is only true if the uranium in the waste is not recycled to extract all the useful energy. To recycle, the used uranium is subsequently considered spent nuclear fuel and is fed into a chemical processing system that separates actinide elements — elements with atomic numbers from 89-103. These elements can be recycled as mixed-oxide fuel — nuclear fuel made from reprocessed uranium and plutonium, to produce more electrical power.

Also, it would be very difficult to run out of a supply of uranium as it is more abundant than tin — so much so, that we would have abundant nuclear energy for thousands of years.

Finally, the risk of spreading nuclear weapons through this process is not concerning as the products from recycling cannot be used for bombs as it is impossible to separate pure plutonium from the mix of uranium and other minor actinides.

Nuclear power is a great replacement for the current fossil fuels that are being used to help fix climate change. The low emissions and abundance of CO2 are great as well. It is understandable that people are nervous about using it, however, it should be noted that there are currently 55 commercially operating nuclear power plants with 93 nuclear power reactors in 28 U.S. states as of Sept., accounting for 20% of our electricity.

A switch to nuclear power leads to a brighter and cleaner future.

Aditya is a junior in GIES.

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