What are the Benefits of Nuclear Power?
One kilogram of uranium can provide energy equal to at least 200 barrels of oil.
Nuclear waste disposal is costly, but nuclear power is still relatively inexpensive.
Nuclear power plants produce fewer pollutants than traditional power plants.
While generally safe when operated in accordance with guidelines, nuclear power plants are at risk for catastrophic disasters, such as the accident that occurred at Chernobyl in 1986.
The energy from a nuclear power plant is produced through controlled nuclear reactions.
Nuclear power has many benefits over other energy sources, particularly older methods such as oil, coal, and hydroelectricity. It is more efficient than these traditional sources of energy, and the raw materials needed to produce it occur commonly throughout the natural world. Additionally, nuclear power plants are relatively cheap to run, and safety measures have improved substantially since the accidents of the 20th century. Although there are some well-known risks to the use of nuclear energy, most are generally comparable to the risks of other types of power generation.
In the early 20th century, scientists discovered how to create energy through the use of highly radioactive elements such as uranium. Famously, this led to the atomic weapons that ended World War II, resulting in a decades-long pattern of nuclear proliferation in countries around the world. At the same time, however, a different process was discovered that could use controlled, non-explosive nuclear reactions to generate cheap electricity. By the 1960s, nations including England, the U.S., and even Japan were constructing nuclear power plants called reactors.
Efficiency and Availability
A small amount of nuclear material can produce a lot of energy; a single kilogram (2.2 pounds) of uranium, for example, can produce at least as much energy as 200 barrels (8,400 gallons or 31.8 m3) of oil or 20,000 kg (44,092 pounds) of coal. Uranium, which is the element used to generate nuclear power, is as common as tin in nature, although it needs to be in a high enough concentration to make worth extracting it commercially. The ore must be mined and treated to separate it from the surrounding rocks, then processed to turn it into uranium dioxide.
Because uranium is so common, it is not subject to the price fluctuations that are standard in the fossil fuel market. Oil, for example, is only found in certain places in the world and production levels can significantly affect the price.
Nuclear energy is considered "clean," in that the amount of carbon and airborne pollutants it produces is very small when compared to traditional power plants. While the plants do produce nuclear waste, the ratio of power generated to waste created is far greater than that of fossil-fuel facilities. Nuclear power plants do require a large amount of water, however, which can affect the surrounding environment. Once used, this water is often contaminated with salts and heavy metals, but this is also true of water used by other types of power plants.
Building and Operating Costs
Uranium is relatively inexpensive, although the cost of processing it and disposing of the waste after it has been used do add to the costs. This means that nuclear power plants are pretty cheap to operate. They are expensive to build, however, because of the special materials and safety features that are required.
Conversely, plants that use fossil fuels such as natural gas, oil, or coal are easier to establish, and their higher fuel costs are often offset by income from power production. The nature of investment capital means that these short-term profits usually have greater appeal to investors than the longer-term returns from nuclear power. This dynamic may change if fossil-fuel prices continue to rise dramatically in the 21st century, however.
Although nuclear energy is considered safe when plants are built and run following very strict guidelines, the potential for catastrophic disaster means that there is a great deal of fear concerning their safety. High-profile accidents such as Russia's 1986 Chernobyl disaster or Japan's Fukushima meltdown in 2011 have eroded public faith. While these are legitimate concerns, it is helpful to place them in the context of other power generation methods. The pollution from fossil fuels, for example, is estimated to kill over 10,000 people in the United States per year, mainly due to respiratory ailments. Fatal incidents at nuclear plants are relatively rare by comparison; the infamous partial meltdown at Pennsylvania's Three Mile Island in 1979 resulted in no fatalities, and studies have found that people who lived in the area had no long-term health problems related to the accident.
Other concerns surround the highly radioactive waste that is an inevitable by-product of nuclear power. Spent nuclear fuel remains dangerous to human and animal life for thousands of years. A safe method of storing nuclear waste for this time span has yet to be discovered, but it is possible to reprocess it to extract the remaining uranium and plutonium and turn them into usable fuel. Although the high expense of this technique has prevented its implementation in the U.S., it is being done in Europe and Russia. This reused fuel, in turn, produces less radioactive waste.
The Chernobyl and Fukushima catastrophes have inspired greater safety measures in the design of future nuclear plants. One such design calls for liquid cores that cannot melt down in the event of an accident, since they are effectively pre-melted. As concerns mount over global climate change, the environmental benefits of nuclear power may be reassessed. If higher safety protocols and radioactive waste reprocessing can be established worldwide, nuclear might become preferable to traditional power generation methods.
The nuclear optionsHow to build a nuclear-power plant
A new crop of developers is challenging the industry leaders
THE Barakah nuclear-power plant under construction in Abu Dhabi will never attract the attention that the Burj Khalifa skyscraper in neighbouring Dubai does, but it is an engineering feat nonetheless. It is using three times as much concrete as the world’s tallest building, and six times the amount of steel. Remarkably, its first reactor may start producing energy in the first half of this year—on schedule and (its South Korean developers insist) on budget. That would be a towering achievement.
In much of the world, building a nuclear-power plant looks like a terrible business prospect. Two recent additions to the world’s nuclear fleet, in Argentina and America, took 33 and 44 years to erect. Of 55 plants under construction, the Global Nuclear Power database reckons almost two-thirds are behind schedule (see chart). The delays lift costs, and make nuclear less competitive with other sources of electricity, such as gas, coal and renewables.
Not one of the two technologies that were supposed to revolutionise the supply of nuclear energy—the European Pressurised Reactor, or EPR, and the AP1000 from America’s Westinghouse—has yet been installed, despite being conceived early this century. In Finland, France and China, all the EPRs under construction are years behind schedule. The main hope for salvaging their reputation—and the nuclear business of EDF, the French utility that owns the technology—is the Hinkley Point C project in Britain, which by now looks a lot like a Hail Mary pass.
Meanwhile, delays with the Westinghouse AP1000 have caused mayhem at Toshiba, its owner. The Japanese firm may announce write-downs in February of up to $6bn on its American nuclear business. As nuclear assets are probably unsellable, it is flogging parts of its core, microchip business instead.
Yet relative upstarts in South Korea and China show that large reactors, such as the four 1,400-megawatt (MW) ones in Abu Dhabi, can be built. Moreover, the business case for a new breed of small reactors below 300MW is improving. This month, Oregon-based NuScale Power became the first American firm to apply for certification of a small modular reactor (SMR) design with America’s nuclear regulators.
“Clearly the momentum seems to be shifting away from traditional suppliers,” says William Magwood, director-general of the OECD’s Nuclear Energy Agency. Both small and large reactors are required. In places like America and Europe, where electricity demand is growing slowly, there is rising interest in small, flexible ones. In fast-growing markets like China, large nuclear plants make more economic sense.
If the South Koreans succeed with their first foreign nuclear programme in Abu Dhabi, the reason is likely to be consistency. Nuclear accidents such as Three-Mile Island in 1979 and Chernobyl in 1986 caused a long hiatus in nuclear construction in America and Europe. But South Korea has invested in nuclear power for four decades, using its own technology since the 1990s, says Lee Jong-ho, an executive at Korea Electric Power (KEPCO), which leads the consortium building Barakah. It does not suffer from the skills shortages that bedevil nuclear construction in the West.
KEPCO always works with the same, familiar suppliers and construction firms hailing from Korea Inc. By contrast, both the EPR and AP1000, first-of-a-kind technologies with inevitable teething problems, have suffered from being contracted out to global engineering firms. Also, South Korea and China both keep nuclear building costs low through repetition and standardisation, says the World Nuclear Association (WNA), an industry group. It estimates that South Korean capital costs have remained fairly stable in the past 20 years, while they have almost tripled in France and America.
The WNA also notes in a report this month a “revival” of interest in SMRs, partly because of rock-bottom sentiment toward large plants. Utilities are finding it tough to pay for big projects (Barakah, for instance costs a whopping $20bn), especially in deregulated power markets where prices have slumped because of an abundance of natural gas and renewable energy. Big investments can sink a firm’s credit rating and jack up its cost of capital.
It is less onerous to pay for an SMR, which means that even though they produce less energy, they can be cost-competitive with larger plants once they are being mass produced, says the WNA. Other advantages are that SMRs will be factory-built, easy to scale up by stacking them together, and quick to install.
America’s regulators expect to reach a decision on NuScale’s application within 40 months. Safety will be the crucial issue; both the reactor and the facilities where it will be fabricated need to pass muster. It uses a well-established pressurised-water technology and claims not to be at risk from the problems that caused the Fukushima disaster in Japan in 2011; it has no pumps, and no need for external power or water. If approved, the success of the technology will not be known until many have been produced. Yet with the prospect of SMRs and the Abu Dhabi plant soon going into action, long-suffering backers of nuclear power at last have something to pin their hopes on.
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Nuclear Power Plants
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Nuclear power plants use the heat generated from nuclear fission in a contained environment to convert water to steam, which powers generators to produce electricity. Although the construction and operation of these facilities are closely monitored and regulated by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), accidents are possible. An accident could result in dangerous levels of radiation that could affect the health and safety of the public living near the nuclear power plant.
Nuclear power plants operate in most states in the country and produce about 20 percent of the nation’s power. Nearly 3 million Americans live within 10 miles of an operating nuclear power plant.
Before a Nuclear Power Plant Emergency
The following are things you can do to protect yourself, your family and your property from the effects of a nuclear power plant emergency:
- Build an Emergency Supply Kit with the addition of plastic sheeting, duct tape and scissors.
- Make a Family Emergency Plan
- Obtain public emergency information materials from the power company that operates your local nuclear power plant or your local emergency services office. If you live within 10 miles of the power plant, you should receive the materials yearly from the power company or your state or local government.
- Sign up for emergency updates, if available, from your local emergency management agency to receive timely and specific information for your area.
During a Nuclear Power Plant Emergency
If an accident at a nuclear power plant were to release radiation in your area, local authorities would activate warning sirens or another approved alert method. They also would instruct you through the Emergency Alert System (EAS) on local television and radio stations on how to protect yourself.
- Follow the EAS instructions carefully.
- Minimize your exposure by increasing the distance between you and the source of the radiation. This could be evacuation or remaining indoors to minimize exposure.
- If you are told to evacuate, keep car windows and vents closed; use re-circulating air.
- If you are advised to remain indoors, turn off the air conditioner, ventilation fans, furnace and other air intakes.
- Shield yourself by placing heavy, dense material between you and the radiation source. Go to a basement or other underground area, if possible.
- Stay out of the incident zone. Most radiation loses its strength fairly quickly.
After a Nuclear Power Plant Emergency
The following are guidelines for the period following a nuclear power plant emergency:
- Stay tuned to local radio or television stations for the latest emergency information.
- Public shelters are locally managed and operated in response to events. If you have been told to evacuate or you feel it is unsafe to remain in your home, go to a designated public shelter. To find the nearest open shelter in your area, text SHELTER + your ZIP code to 43362 (4FEMA), example: shelter 12345.
- Act quickly if you have come in to contact with or have been exposed to hazardous radiation.
- Follow decontamination instructions from local authorities.
- Change your clothes and shoes; put exposed clothing in a plastic bag; seal it and place it out of the way.
- Seek medical treatment for unusual symptoms, such as nausea, as soon as possible.
- Help a neighbor who may require special assistance - infants, elderly people and people with access and functional needs may require additional assistance.
- Return home only when authorities say it is safe.
- Keep food in covered containers or in the refrigerator.
- Building as Shelter Text Version (link)
- Planning Guidance for Response to a Nuclear Detonation (PDF)
- American Red Cross (link)
- Nuclear Regulatory Commission (link)
- Department of Energy National Nuclear Security Administration (link)
- Environmental Protection Agency (link)
Build A Kithttps://www.ready.gov/build-a-kitMake sure your emergency kit is stocked with the items on the checklist below. Most of the items are inexpensive and easy to find, and any one of them could save your life. Headed to the store? Download a printable version to take with you. Once you take a look at the basic items, consider what unique needs your family might have, such as supplies for pets, or seniors.After an emergency, you may need to survive on your own for several days. Being prepared means having your own food, water and other supplies to last for at least 72 hours. A disaster supplies kit is a collection of basic items your household may need in the event of an emergency.
Basic Disaster Supplies KitTo assemble your kit, store items in airtight plastic bags and put your entire disaster supplies kit in one or two easy-to-carry containers such as plastic bins or a duffel bag.A basic emergency supply kit could include the following recommended items:
Download the Recommended Supplies List (PDF)
- Water - one gallon of water per person per day for at least three days, for drinking and sanitation
- Food - at least a three-day supply of non-perishable food
- Battery-powered or hand crank radio and a NOAA Weather Radio with tone alert
- First aid kit
- Extra batteries
- Whistle to signal for help
- Dust mask to help filter contaminated air and plastic sheeting and duct tape to shelter-in-place
- Moist towelettes, garbage bags and plastic ties for personal sanitation
- Wrench or pliers to turn off utilities
- Manual can opener for food
- Local maps
- Cell phone with chargers and a backup battery
Additional Emergency SuppliesConsider adding the following items to your emergency supply kit based on your individual needs:
- Prescription medications
- Non-prescription medications such as pain relievers, anti-diarrhea medication, antacids or laxatives
- Glasses and contact lense solution
- Infant formula, bottles, diapers, wipes, diaper rash cream
- Pet food and extra water for your pet
- Cash or traveler's checks
- Important family documents such as copies of insurance policies, identification and bank account records saved electronically or in a waterproof, portable container
- Sleeping bag or warm blanket for each person
- Complete change of clothing appropriate for your climate and sturdy shoes
- Household chlorine bleach and medicine dropper to disinfect water
- Fire extinguisher
- Matches in a waterproof container
- Feminine supplies and personal hygiene items
- Mess kits, paper cups, plates, paper towels and plastic utensils
- Paper and pencil
- Books, games, puzzles or other activities for children
Maintaining Your KitAfter assembling your kit remember to maintain it so it’s ready when needed:
- Keep canned food in a cool, dry place
- Store boxed food in tightly closed plastic or metal containers
- Replace expired items as needed
- Re-think your needs every year and update your kit as your family’s needs change.
Kit Storage LocationsSince you do not know where you will be when an emergency occurs, prepare supplies for home, work and vehicles.
- Home: Keep this kit in a designated place and have it ready in case you have to leave your home quickly. Make sure all family members know where the kit is kept.
- Work: Be prepared to shelter at work for at least 24 hours. Your work kit should include food, water and other necessities like medicines, as well as comfortable walking shoes, stored in a “grab and go” case.
- Vehicle: In case you are stranded, keep a kit of emergency supplies in your car.
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