Nuclear energy

There are two primary methods for producing nuclear energy.

Nuclear fission

Nuclear fission is a reaction that occurs when atoms are split, releasing heat to generate steam that drives a turbine which generates electricity.

Modern-day nuclear plants use fission in the generation of electricity, usually with uranium as the fuel source, but sometimes plutonium or thorium.

Nuclear fusion

Nuclear fusion occurs when atomic nuclei collide at great speed to fuse and form a new atomic nucleus. Some of the matter converts to photons during fusion producing usable energy.

Nuclear energy is a virtually inexhaustible source of energy, but it poses significant challenges for engineers and scientists.

Nuclear power is regarded as a replacement for fossil fuels, which are a finite resource. Nuclear fission releases one million times more energy per atom than fossil fuel and can be incorporated into current electricity grids that use fossil fuel with just a few changes to the infrastructure.

The question is how long will the planet’s uranium supplies last? According to Steve Fetter, dean of the University of Maryland’s School of Public Policy, the planet’s uranium supplies will only last for approximately 230 years at present consumption rates, given the known sources of uranium.

It is, however, estimated that renewable sources of energy will take over from nuclear and that most of our energy would come from natural sources such as wind, solar, ocean, hydropower and biomass within the next 30 or so years. 

The significant generating capacity of nuclear power plants and low costs of operation are advantages for nuclear energy but to set up a nuclear power plant is costly, and the plant must be operational for many years before costs can be recuperated.

Around 80% of nuclear power is presently generated in OECD countries, but nuclear power currently supplies just 11% of global electricity. Because nuclear power has not been proven to produce harmful greenhouse gas emissions it can be viewed as an environmentally sound substitute for energy derived from fossil fuels and hailed as a solution to mitigate climate change.

Nuclear energy doesn’t directly release harmful greenhouse gases however it may generate radioactive waste which can severely harm the environment and health of those in surrounding areas.