Since 1986, nuclear energy has kept a relatively low profile in the public eye. The Chernobyl disaster of that year showed how dangerous reactors could be. However, besides the safety factor, there were other risks to nuclear energy which caused its popularity to wane.
- Nuclear energy can be used for production and proliferation of nuclear weapons.
- The construction of a nuclear power plant requires large capital commitments and takes 15-20 years to build.
- The nuclear reactors work with uranium, which is not widely available.
- The waste produced after fission reactions contains unstable elements and is highly radioactive.
In spite of its poor public image, the advantages associated with nuclear energy have made sure it has not been out of the minds of energy providers.
- Nuclear reactors release a million times more energy than hydro or wind energy and currently produce 12-18% of the world’s electricity.
- There is no release of green house gas emissions associated with nuclear reaction. As there is no green house gas emission, there is very little effect on the environment.
- Fission reaction uses only a small amount of uranium so present reserves are expected to last for another 100 years.
- Nuclear fuel is inexpensive to make and easy to transport.
What is happening with nuclear energy now? Four advances are in development which are intended to address many of the disadvantages of nuclear energy and could mean significant progress in nuclear power technologies.
- Miniature nuclear reactors, no larger than hot tub, could provide electricity power as soon as 2020. Measuring about 1.5 meters across, a mini reactor can power about 20,000 homes. In addition, the reactors are inexpensive to build and highly transportable.
- “Generation IV” nuclear energy is a collection of nuclear reactor technologies that could be implemented by 2030 and present significant improvements in economics, safety, reliability and sustainability over current Generation II and III reactor technologies.
- Thorium, by weight, can produce as much energy as 200 times that provided by the same amount of uranium and 3.5 million times that of coal. It is far more plentiful than uranium, does not process into a nuclear weapons grade product and could quickly wean the world off oil.
- Currently there is a seven national party project which has initiated the construction of an experimental nuclear fusion reactor project. If all goes according to plan, officials hope to complete a demonstration fusion reactor at Cadarache, France, by 2040. Fusion reaction energy would use common sea water to generate clean energy in virtually unlimited quantities.
- Reprocessing of nuclear waste could enable partial reusability of the fuels, extending the sustainability of the reserves substantially.
In spite of some serious safety setbacks which gave nuclear power a very negative public image, nuclear power could have an important part to play in the Earth’s energy future.