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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.