Nuclear Energy Advantages and Disadvantages

Nuclear Energy Impacts on the Environment and Humanity

Nuclear energy is one of the most controversial energy sources, with advantages and disadvantages. On the one hand, it is a low-carbon alternative to fossil fuels, capable of generating large amounts of electricity. On the other hand, it presents environmental and safety risks, such as the 2011 accident in Fukushima, Japan, which released radiation into the atmosphere and ocean, affecting the health and ecosystem of millions of people.

Estimated reading time: 8 minutes

History of energy since the Industrial Revolution

The history of energy since the industrial revolution is marked by major transformations in the modes of production, consumption and distribution of energy.

The industrial revolution, which began in the 18th century in England, was driven by the use of mineral coal as a source of energy for steam engines.

Coal enabled the development of industry, transport and urbanization, but it also brought negative consequences for the environment and human health.

For example, coal was responsible for the emission of polluting gases, such as carbon dioxide and sulfur dioxide, which caused acid rain, greenhouse effect and respiratory diseases.

In the 19th century, new sources of energy emerged, such as oil, natural gas and electricity.

Oil and natural gas were used mainly for internal combustion engines, which powered cars, planes and boats.

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Electricity was generated from different sources, such as hydroelectric, thermoelectric and nuclear, which allowed lighting, heating and distance communication.

With electricity it was possible to create radio, cinema, television and the internet, which revolutionized culture and information.

These new energy sources also had their environmental and social costs, such as the unequal exploitation of natural resources, nuclear accidents and conflicts over oil territories.

In the 20th century, the demand for energy increased even further, due to population growth, industrialization and globalization.

Dependence on fossil fuels (coal, oil and natural gas) has intensified, causing problems such as atmospheric pollution, climate changes and geopolitical conflicts.

For example, the 1973 oil crisis caused a global economic recession and increased tensions between oil-producing and oil-consuming countries.

Therefore, new energy alternatives have emerged, such as renewable sources (solar, wind, biomass, etc.) and clean (hydrogen, fuel cells, etc.) that reduce the environmental and social impacts of energy production.

Renewable energies take advantage of inexhaustible natural resources, such as the sun and wind, which do not emit greenhouse gases or generate nuclear waste.

As for nuclear energy, it has advantages and disadvantages, some benefits but also very high risks.

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Advantages of nuclear energy

- Low greenhouse gas emissions: Nuclear energy does not burn fossil fuels, therefore it does not emit greenhouse gases, does not contribute to global warming. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), nuclear energy prevented the emission of around 63 gigatons of carbon dioxide between 1971 and 2018, the equivalent of two years of global emissions.

- High efficiency and availability: Nuclear energy has a high energy density, that is, a small amount of fuel can generate a large amount of electricity. Furthermore, nuclear power plants can operate continuously for long periods, without depending on weather conditions or seasonality, like renewable sources.

- Reduced energy dependence: Nuclear energy can reduce the dependence of countries that import fossil fuels from other regions, increasing their sovereignty and energy security. Furthermore, uranium, the main nuclear fuel, is a resource that can be found in several countries.

- Scientific and technological development: Nuclear energy stimulates the development of new technologies and scientific research, which can bring benefits to other areas, such as medicine, industry and agriculture. For example, radiation can be used to sterilize medical equipment, produce radiopharmaceuticals, improve the quality of food and materials, among other applications.

The Nuclear Energy Cycle Credit Nuclear Regulatory Commission from US, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
The Nuclear Energy Cycle; Credit: Nuclear Regulatory Commission from US, CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Disadvantages of nuclear energy

- Risk of accidents or escapes: Nuclear energy involves the handling of radioactive materials, which can cause serious harm to health and the environment if control of the nuclear reaction in a reactor is lost. The best-known examples are the accidents at Kyshtym in Russia in 1957, Three Mile Island in the United States in 1979, Chernobyl in Ukraine in 1986 and Fukushima in Japan in 2011, which caused deaths, illnesses, evacuations and large-scale contamination. Furthermore, there is the risk of terrorist attacks or sabotage at nuclear power plants, which could have catastrophic consequences.

- Nuclear waste problem: Nuclear energy generates nuclear waste that remains radioactive for thousands or millions of years and that needs to be stored safely to avoid human or environmental exposure. However, there is still no definitive solution for the final destination of this waste, which represents a technical, political and ethical challenge for present and future generations.

- High cost and complexity: Nuclear energy requires a very high initial investment for the construction of nuclear power plants, which are complex and time-consuming projects. In addition, there are high operational and regulatory costs related to the maintenance, safety, inspection and management of nuclear waste. According to data from International Energy Agency (AIE), nuclear energy has an average cost of $65 per megawatt-hour (MWh) in the US, which is higher than the average cost of renewable sources ($45 per MWh).

- Ethical and political issues: Nuclear energy raises ethical and political questions about its use, whether peaceful or military. Some countries possess nuclear weapons, which can cause unprecedented devastation in the event of conflict. Other countries seek to develop nuclear programs for civil or military purposes, generating tension and distrust in the international community. There is also debate about the right of access to nuclear energy and the shared responsibility for its safety and sustainability.

What matters most about these arguments?

France, with Emmanuel Macron, intends to increase its nuclear energy production while Germany, with Olaf Scholz, refutes this strategy and dismantles its last nuclear power plants.

Different assessments of the advantages and disadvantages of nuclear energy!

Currently there are 437 operational nuclear reactors. If we statistically analyze the 4 accidents mentioned, they represent 0,9% of danger and many say that it is a much lower percentage than car or plane accidents, given that technology is constantly evolving and, therefore, safety mechanisms will be increasingly efficient. .

The historical evolution of the use of energy by man shows that the forms of production, consumption and distribution of energy are related to the economic, political, cultural and environmental aspects of each era.

The energy sources used over the centuries reflect the needs and challenges faced by human societies in different contexts.

In this sense, it is important to critically evaluate the advantages and disadvantages of currently available energy sources and project future scenarios, which guarantee sustainable development for planet Earth.

An accident at a nuclear power plant reactor can have serious consequences for the population and the global environment, depending on the extent and duration of the accident.

Radiation exposure can cause lethal damage.

Radiation is a form of energy that can penetrate the tissues of the human body and alter the DNA of cells, causing mutations or cell death.

Genetic mutations can also have catastrophic consequences for future generations.

The dose of radiation received depends on distance, time and the type of radioactive source. Furthermore, radioactive contamination can affect soil, water and air quality, harming agriculture, biodiversity and the climate.

Conclusion

Nuclear energy is an energy source that has advantages and disadvantages and, therefore, must be evaluated with strict criteria and complete transparency.

There is no definitive answer to the question of whether nuclear is the energy option of the future, as it depends on several factors, such as the needs, resources, objectives and values ​​of each country or region.

What can be said is that nuclear energy is one of the options available for the energy transition, which aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and guarantee the supply of energy for human development.

However, this option requires a commitment to safety, ethics and innovation to minimize the risks and maximize the benefits of nuclear energy for people and our planet.

In nuclear power plants, not only must rigorous safety measures be implemented, they must also be subject to permanent monitoring to avoid or minimize the risk of accidents.

For all these reasons, nuclear energy is an expensive, polluting and risky option and there are alternatives that can better contribute to a sustainable energy transition.

As for the dangers, although they can be reduced, an accident in a plant has a much greater impact than in a non-nuclear factory, which can be catastrophic.

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