Nuclear power has always been, to me, the most intriguing source of power. In commercial reactors throughout the world, energy released from fission reactions is extracted and used in the form of heat to heat fluid in a power cycle such as a Rankine cycle, where the working fluid is water, to eventually generate electricity. In my studies of nuclear power, it seems like there are many advantages to its use, including low emissions of green house gases (CO2), and it is a highly efficient source of power. One thing that amazed me to find out was that a few small pellets of Uranium that can fit into your hand are capable of providing as much or more electricity than a ton of coal with fewer emissions and higher efficiency. It almost seems like the perfect source for creating energy, yet according to data for 2006, it only accounts for about 1/5 of US and world electric consumption, while in the US coal plants account for about half of the electric consumption.
Why might this be? Well, I guess a number of factors are at play, including size, scale, and cost of each type of power plant (Nuclear can be more expensive due to containment), maybe proliferation concerns, as well as national security issues. While congressional republicans tend to favor the use, democrats seem to be split on the issue, with some in favor of use calling it a potential renewable energy source, and others not wanting to consider it that because of certain environmental concerns. The current presidential administration’s view on that of Nuclear power is one that seems to favor its use. According to an article in US News, the administration’s Energy secretary, Steven Chu, stated to Congress in 2009 “I believe in nuclear power as a central part of our energy mix.” According to an excerpt from the Obama-Biden energy plan in 2009, “Nuclear power represents more than 70 percent of our non-carbon generated electricity. It is unlikely that we can meet our aggressive climate goals if we eliminate nuclear power as an option. However, before an expansion of nuclear power is considered, key issues must be addressed including: security of nuclear fuel and waste, waste storage, and proliferation.” It seems that in order to meet the goals to reduce climate change, yet still meet our energy demands, nuclear power should not be dismissed, but we must address certain concerns with this power source.
So what is the number 1 issue associated with this power source? Surprisingly, it is actually handling waste. The waste and byproducts associated with nuclear power can have very harmful adverse effects on the environment. There does not seem to exist a long term solution for handling waste as of now. This brings me to Yucca Mountain, located in Nevada, which is a proposed site for a large scale waste repository. Yucca Mountain is a very controversial issue associated with the handling of Nuclear Waste. According to a statement by President Obama, “I believe a better short-term solution is to store nuclear waste on-site at the reactors where it is produced, or at a designated facility in the state where it is produced, until we find a safe, long-term disposal solution that is based on sound science.” Furthermore, according to another article by US News, “the Yucca Mountain program will be scaled back to those costs necessary to answer inquiries from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), while the administration devises a new strategy toward nuclear waste disposal.” It seems that the current administration’s view on the subject is that it is necessary to find safer short-term alternatives that do not require a large repository, until a sound long term alternative for waste handling can be devised.
Nuclear power is an interesting power source with what looks to be a bright future. Other applications of nuclear power seem to include use on naval vessels, and as a potential use for propulsion of space craft. In my opinion, I feel that it would be a mistake to reduce its usage, or even completely do away with it as an energy source. I agree with the current administration; if we intend to meet our climate goals and our power needs, it needs to be an important option, and more money and research needs to be put towards the matter to find suitable long-term waste handling options. Other countries, including France, use nuclear power to cover a large portion of their electrical consumption. Finally, I think that nuclear power is a great source of energy, but adequate measures need to be taken to address security and environmental waste issues.