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Nuclear Energy 101: What Is It—and How Could It Benefit the Planet?

Want to learn more about nuclear energy? Check out our guide to understand how it's good for the environment.

Written by
Inga Vallery Phlegar
January 17, 2022

Nuclear energy is one of the primary sources of electricity, providing 10% of the world's electric energy. In the U.S., around 20% of our electricity comes from nuclear power plants.

Nuclear energy is said to be a more sustainable energy option than fossil fuel-fired power plants, as nuclear reactors don't emit carbon dioxide or greenhouse gases. However, before we understand the benefits of nuclear power, we first need to understand what it is and how it's used.

What Is Nuclear Energy?

Nuclear engineering isn't easy to understand—especially if you've never taken a course in nuclear physics or chemistry. Let's leave the complex details to the scientists and look at the basics of the process instead. The standard nuclear reactor uses these steps to create energy:

1. A Reaction Happens

Inside a nuclear reactor, the process of nuclear fission takes place. Nuclear fission is the process in which the nucleus of an atom—the middle part made up of protons and neutrons—splits into parts. When it splits, a large amount of heat and energy is produced.

2. Water Is Heated

It's useful to think of a nuclear reactor like it's a giant tea kettle. The nuclear reaction that takes place generates a lot of heat. Since the reaction takes place in water, the water heats up. It either boils or remains very hot.

3. Turbines Spin

This heated water then becomes steam. The steam pushes large blades of a turbine, producing energy. This is a similar concept to the windmill, except instead of wind moving the blades, they're moved by steam.

4. Energy Is Created and Distributed

The turbine spinning drives generators. These generators turn the energy into electricity. Following that, the electricity moves in the same way that other electricity does. One of the major benefits of nuclear energy is that it's easily accessible. When there's a nuclear reactor in place, it can generate energy at any time, day or night. It doesn't depend on factors like sunlight or the availability of wind.

Why Is Nuclear Energy Good for the Environment?

"Nuclear" might sound a little scary, but it's nothing to be afraid of. Nuclear energy is being touted as a sustainable solution to power the world, and here's why scientists are all for it.

1. Keeps Air Clean

Many of us associate power plants with gray smog and pollution. However, these gray plumes are misleading. For nuclear energy, the smog you see is just steam! In fact, the only thing that a nuclear reactor releases into the air is water vapor.

The U.S. avoided more than 471.3 million tons of carbon emissions in 2020 with the help of nuclear energy. And lowering the level of carbon emissions is essential to help fight global warming and climate change.

2. Has a Small Land Footprint

Nuclear energy also has a small land footprint, meaning it uses significantly less land than other eco-friendly power options like solar and hydro. As decreasing your carbon footprint and water footprint benefits the environment, decreasing land footprints is also planet-friendly.

3. Less Waste

The nuclear waste produced by U.S. nuclear power plants over the last 60 years could fit in a football field at a depth of fewer than 10 yards. For such a massive industry, this is a shockingly small amount, meaning nuclear power could help us decrease the amount of waste produced.

4. Cost-Effective

To generate nuclear energy, very little material is required. This means that less mining is necessary, and transportation costs are reduced. There's a cost-benefit to consumers. The electricity we generate from nuclear power plants is cheaper; therefore it's more accessible to low-income populations.

If Nuclear Is So Great, Why Isn't That How We Get All Our Energy?

Nuclear energy is an eco-friendly energy source. However, not everyone is on board with it. Here's why.

Nuclear Energy's Image Problem

Many generations have experienced nuclear tragedies. Baby boomers lived through the Cold War, a time of psychological terror associated with the possibility of nuclear war. Generation Y experienced the Chernobyl Accident of 1986 which rendered 1,000 square miles uninhabitable for the next 20,000 years. And Millennials were raised during the Fukushima Accident, which added the threat of radiation to an already devastating natural disaster.

These events have understandably framed the way people perceive nuclear energy. However, nuclear energy is less radioactive than coal. Many are unaware that coal plants release concentrated uranium and thorium into the areas around them.

Nuclear Waste

There are also two types of nuclear waste: low-level waste and high-level waste. Most of the waste produced by nuclear power plants is low-level. Low-level waste includes gloves, mechanical parts, and tools that have been exposed to radiation. And this waste can be moved to specialized disposal facilities. It can also be stored at the plant until it stops being radioactive and can be treated like normal trash.

The real issue, however, is the high-level waste. This is leftover fuel from reactors, which is still extremely radioactive. Currently, there's no system in place to dispose of this fuel. There are many proposed plans of how to fix this problem, but because of the dangerous nature of the waste, many disposal methods are suspect. In the future, there are hopes to find ways to reuse this waste.

The Takeaway

Right now, it's unclear how and if nuclear energy will shape our future. With the fear behind all things nuclear, it's hard to say. But if not nuclear, change needs to happen soon: Our world—and humanity—is depending on it.