Nuclear energy is an extraordinary resource that we can harness for numerous needs. It is an energy source that produces zero emissions after a facility comes online, provides electricity access all day and night, and propels society toward the future.
We generate nuclear energy by splitting atoms in a reactor. This process heats water into steam that turns a turbine to generate electricity. The U.S. currently operates 96 nuclear reactors at 58 locations in 29 states, and this effort generates about one-fifth of the country’s needs each year. Because each reactor uses uranium to produce heat instead of fossil fuels, there aren’t any carbon emissions to worry about with this option.
When reviewing the nuclear energy advantages and disadvantages in this guide, it is essential to remember that the structure of this resource creates unique opportunities for society. These power plants are always on, experience few interruptions, and can withstand extreme weather events.
List of the Advantages of Nuclear Energy
1. Nuclear energy provides a boost to international development.
Several countries are experiencing their own version of the Industrial Revolution right now. The “developing” world produces incredible gains when it has access to nuclear energy. Instead of powering through decades of soot and ash from the combustion of coal, it becomes possible to meet sustainable goals much faster. The countries with access to nuclear energy can transmit electricity to these areas at an affordable cost to support more equality throughout the human race.
2. Our atmosphere receives protection because of nuclear energy.
Nuclear energy might provide an increased risk of a radiation event because of how it produces heat to generate electricity, but it produces power without the same pollution issues that fossil fuels provide. You won’t find any particulate matter, sulfur dioxide, or nitrogen oxide coming from these facilities during their operations. It doesn’t produce mercury as a side-effect of consumption either. We receive a stable resource for our energy needs all day and throughout the night without a trace of these harmful items.
3. High-paying jobs are available because of the presence of this resource.
Nuclear energy resources in the United States are responsible for over 100,000 high-paying jobs that support local economies. Millions of dollars in local and state tax revenues come from this work, along with the spending that occurs with the wages that become available. These positions are full-time, long-term opportunities for trained individuals to create a life for themselves and their families.
The average wage for a nuclear power reactor operator in the United States is currently more than $77,000 per year. Higher wages are available in New York State where the entry-level positions can earn more than $85,000 annually.
4. Nuclear energy supports pollution reductions in other industries.
One of the most promising technologies in the past 20 years that can reduce greenhouse gas emissions is electrified transportation. Using the power from our existing grid eliminates the need for combustion-related processes as we drive. The only issue with an electric vehicle is that a coal-fired power plant still produces high levels of particulates and emissions to generate a charging process. Households that have access to nuclear energy can eliminate this issue, creating a carbon-free future where all industries can finally reach their maximum potential.
5. Electricity reliability occurs because of this technology.
A reliable source of electricity is necessary for any nation to become prosperous in the 21st century. That means it must be available at any time whenever anyone needs to access this resource. Nuclear energy is one of the few options that we have available right now that can run nonstop without producing significant pollution levels. The only comparable resource is geothermal energy.
Once the fission process starts in a nuclear reactor, the power plant can operate non-stop for 24 to 36 months from that single activity. That is why this industry is considered a critical component of the world’s infrastructure.
6. The use of nuclear energy guarantees national leadership in critical sectors.
The United States was the first country to bring the idea of nuclear energy to the rest of the world. It continues to innovate in this field, sharing its findings with trusted allies to support positive development globally. Although the technologies that give us electricity can be abused to build something dangerous, the ability to respond to the growing demands for clean energy quickly can only come from this technology with our current knowledge base.
The countries that can continue to innovate in this sector will provide national leadership to the rest of the world as we begin to think about what life could be like in the 22nd century.
7. Nuclear energy can help the world fight climate change.
Once a nuclear power plant becomes active, its emission profile changes to zero. That means we can use this technology to begin fighting climate change with an initial investment in the building process. Even when geothermal resources get compared to this one, nuclear still comes out ahead because it can be placed anywhere and produce more electricity per facility. American power plants produce an average of 1 gigawatt per location.
The Palo Verde nuclear power plant is the largest in the United States. Its total summer generating capacity with its three reactors generates almost 4,000 megawatts of capacity. Even the smallest facility, the R.E. Ginna nuclear power plant in New York, has a net summer generating capacity of 582 megawatts.
8. Countries with nuclear energy can support their national security structures.
The countries that use nuclear energy to support their infrastructure are able to maintain safety standards around the world with this technology. These nations also work together to support non-proliferation standards around the world. That means everyone using this approach can create an electrical grid with resilience while supporting defensive capabilities. Numerous naval vessels from several countries use nuclear reactors for power, and it could be what takes us further into space in the future.
9. Nuclear energy releases less radiation into the environment than other major resources.
Although this advantage seems like a paradox, the data doesn’t lie. Coal is the worst contributor to radioactive leaks since the material often contains thorium and uranium. Burning it gasifies the organic materials, concentrating the mineral components into fly ash waste. This environmental hazard is so high that the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission once thought about extracting uranium from this particulate matter.
Several countries right now, including South Africa, Hungary, and China, are exploring ways to extract uranium from coal fly ash.
10. The threat of radiation is not as dangerous as other energy-producing issues.
Most people agree that the worst accident in nuclear energy history happened at Chernobyl. Over 30 years of studying the population in the aftermath of the incident found about 6,500 excessive cases of thyroid cancer in the region, with most of them from children at the time who drank contaminated milk and didn’t evacuate from the region. 15 deaths, along with 29 disaster-relief specialists who received fatal radiation doses in their response, are attributed to this event.
When a hydroelectric dam failed in China failed, the water release caused at least 26,000 people to drown. When comparing the years of life lost per every trillion kilowatt-hours of energy produced, nuclear beats wind energy by 50% and it is 3.5 times safer than natural gas.
11. Nuclear energy provides us with more than electricity.
The advantages of nuclear energy extend beyond its ability to produce electricity without additional carbon emissions. We use it to provide potable water through the processes of desalination, create radioisotopes to treat cancer and sterilize medical equipment. We use the radiation from this resource to treat food by killing bacteria, parasites, and insects that can cause illness. Even some consumer products, like photocopiers and smoke detectors, use small amounts of radioactive materials to keep us productive or safe.
12. This energy resource has a high density.
When we use uranium in a nuclear power plant to produce energy, the results are over 16,000 times more effective than what we receive from coal in pound-for-pound comparisons. That makes it one of the densest forms of energy production that we have today. When one compares the potential of nuclear energy against the renewables sector, the generation capacity can be as high as 10 million to one. Until new technologies develop, nothing has the same potential to generate electricity at such a high level.
List of the Disadvantages of Nuclear Energy
1. Nuclear energy always produces radioactive waste.
A nuclear power plant might not generate greenhouse gas emissions when operating, but it does create radioactive wastes. Each facility must manage spent reactor fuel, uranium mill tailings, and other products that are potentially harmful to human life with exposure. These materials can remain dangerous for several thousand years. Every plant in the United States must meet special regulations that govern the transportation, handling, and storage of these items to protect the environment.
Each facility is currently responsible for the storage and maintenance of its own radioactive waste. The U.S. has 21 sites that store this byproduct of nuclear energy without an attached reactor that produces revenue or electricity, creating an expense that totals over $7 billion.
2. The construction materials for a nuclear power plant generate greenhouse gas emissions.
A nuclear power plant has significant concrete and metal materials included in its final design. These products use fossil fuels as part of the mining and refining processes needed to create usable items. Uranium ore must also go through a refinement method that uses combustible fuels. That means we are creating a long-term investment with this resource for the environment instead of making an immediate difference. It can take several years for nuclear energy to repay the initial emissions payment at each location that comes online.
3. Nuclear energy requires a complex safety and security arrangement.
Large areas that surround a nuclear facility is restricted to the general public to ensure the reactor can operate normally. Armed security teams protect it and the perimeter to keep the region safe from targeted attacks. Reactors in the United States have containment vessels available that withstand earthquakes and extreme weather events, such as a tornado.
Even with these protections in place, an uncontrolled nuclear reaction in the reactor could create widespread contamination of the air and water locally. Although the risk of this event is small from an American perspective, there have been several close calls in history. The most serious U.S. event happened at Three Mile Island near Harrisburg, PA. The core heated to over 4,000°F, which was just 1,000 degrees short of a meltdown. Radioactive steam poured out of the plant.
4. When reactors stop operating, each one must go through a decommissioning process.
When a nuclear reactor stops producing electricity, then it must go through a decommissioning effort to prevent radioactive materials from spreading. This work involves the safe removal from service of the equipment associated with the reactor. Anything that is potentially radioactive must go through this process to reduce risks. Then the spent reactor fuel assemblies get stored in specifically designed dry-storage containers. Strict and potentially costly rules from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission govern this process, with similar regulations in place around the world.
5. It takes a long time to bring a new nuclear power plant online.
The planning-to-operation time average for every facility ever built is over 10 years. One of the newest facilities, the Olkiluoto 3 reactor in Finland, received approval for funding in December 2000. It currently has an estimated starting date in late 2020, giving it a 20-year gap with this disadvantage. The Hinkley Point nuclear plant started in 2008, and it won’t be finished until at least 2025.
Even the Vogtle reactors in Georgia, which were first proposed in 2006, would take up to 16 years to complete even though they’re being added to an existing facility. It takes a significant time and resource investment to make nuclear energy a reality.
6. The initial cost of nuclear energy is much higher than other resources.
When we look at the expense of a new nuclear facility using the Levelized Cost of Energy figures, it is much higher to use this technology compared to renewable resources. It is over $100 more per megawatt-hour when all of the costs of power generation get included in the figures, including the long-term price to store radioactive waste afterward. Solar and wind energy, even without subsidies, is now competitive with the traditional forms of electricity generation. It doesn’t with the long-term installation delays either.
7. Nuclear energy comes with a weapons proliferation risk.
We see a growth in nuclear energy outcomes based on a country’s ability to obtain and refine plutonium or enrich uranium. These processes are concerning because it can also lead to the manufacturing of nuclear weapons. This disadvantage is one of the primary reasons why Europe and North America have concerns about Iran’s pursuit of creating a power plant using this technology.
Even the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recognized in 2014 that the proliferation of nuclear weapons is a significant barrier and disadvantage to the development of energy resources in this sector.
8. There is a meltdown risk to consider with nuclear energy.
Only four meltdowns have had catastrophic results in the history of nuclear energy: Fukushima, Chernobyl, Saint-Laurent, and Three Mile Island. Even with improvements to nuclear reactor designs, the failure rate of the industry stands at 1.5%. The threat of a major disaster looms large if an immediate incident occurs that doesn’t allow for a complete evacuation like the one that happened in Japan after the earthquake and tsunami.
9. Mining uranium creates health risks for workers.
Uranium miners have an unusually high rate of lung cancer diagnoses even when smoking or tobacco influences are missing. The reason for this disadvantage is the presence of radon gas, a natural effect that develops with this resource. Some of the decay products are carcinogenic. Over 4,000 employees were studied for 50 years beginning in 1950, with 10% dying of lung cancer during the review period. Another 1.5% died from other mining-related lung diseases.
Nuclear energy might provide several benefits, but it requires continuous mining materials that can negatively impact the health of others.
10. The United States doesn’t have a central, secure deposit for nuclear waste.
Americans don’t have a long-term storage facility for nuclear waste. Most plants are responsible for handling this issue locally. A proposal to use Yucca Mountain in Nevada was once close to being opened, but it was shuttered in 2011 without a restart. That means the only deep-waste repository that exists is in New Mexico, and even that location struggles to manage what is present.
11. Nuclear energy isn’t a 100% renewable resource.
Although nuclear energy creates electricity without the same emissions profile as fossil fuels, we still create it using finite resources. The amount of uranium on our planet is limited, as is our access to thorium and plutonium. We’ve already gone through the fear of a potential shortage in this area, and the global inventory currently stands at 1.79 billion pounds as of 2018. We’re currently operating at a 55 million pound annual deficit, which means there is a ticking clock in place for this resource – just as there is for oil, natural gas, and other items.
12. The transmission of nuclear energy requires correct handling to hit top-tier efficiencies.
One of the primary advantages of using nuclear energy to create electricity is that power can transmit across a significant grid without major losses. That benefit applies when the processes go through the correct handling procedures. When we look at the procedures followed in India with this sector, the distribution losses can be as high as 30%. Even Americans can see a loss level above 10% because of the inadequacy of the transmission lines.
The only way to avoid this problem is to invest in high-voltage, low-loss lines. That’s an upgrade for most communities who currently use low-voltage options, which means there’s another cost increase to consider when installing new nuclear capacities.
There is no denying the potential of nuclear energy as a resource. It produces one of the most efficient types of power that is available to us today. The industry operates with an average capacity factor of 91%, beating almost every other form of production by a substantial margin. Coal produces at a 59% capacity factor, while natural gas reaches 50%. Wind power operates with a 32% efficiency rate.
Even when a nuclear facility must get taken offline for routine maintenance or refueling, the outage length is negligible. The average time dropped over 41 days from 2010 to average just 37 days per incident.
The advantages and disadvantages of nuclear energy are clear. This approach to power generation must be part of the energy solution in the future. Even with its dangers and the difficulties involved in the disposal of radioactive waste, no other resource can provide what we need for society to move forward as consistently as this option.
Brandon Miller has a B.A. from the University of Texas at Austin. He is a seasoned writer who has written over one hundred articles, which have been read by over 500,000 people. If you have any comments or concerns about this blog post, then please contact the Green Garage team here.