Nuclear Energy – Then and Now

Posted by Laura Bretz on 9/10/15 8:38 AM

Of all the energy types we use, nuclear energy is one of the newest forms.  Although ancient Greek philosophers first came up with the idea that all of life is composed of invisible particles called “atoms,” it wasn’t until the 18th and 19th century that scientists really started to pursue the theory. In 1904, British physicist Ernest Rutherford, the father of nuclear science, wrote “If it were ever possible to control at will the rate of disintegration of the radio elements, an enormous amount of energy could be obtained from a small amount of matter.” He was correct.

Austrian physicist Lise Meitner standing with Otto HahnIn 1938, Otto Hahn, Fritz Strassmann and physicist Lise Meitner found that the nucleus of a uranium atom could be split by hitting it with neutrons. This process is called fission. When the uranium nucleus split, some of the mass was converted to heat energy.  In 1942, Enrico Fermi and a group of other physicists saw that the fission of one uranium atom created more neutrons which could then split other uranium atoms, creating a chain reaction. It didn’t take them long to realize that there was a large potential for massive amounts of energy to be produced.  That process was soon called nuclear fission. Otto Hahn and Enrico Fermi were both awarded Nobel Prizes for their efforts.

Not long after, the process of nuclear fission was used for highly destructive purposes under the code name “Manhattan Project.”  After World War II, the United States government strongly encouraged the development of nuclear energy for peaceful, civilian purposes.  With this thought in mind, Congress created the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) in 1946 and an experimental site in Idaho was constructed.  This reactor ended up producing the first electricity from nuclear energy in late 1951.  The first nuclear power plant designed to provide energy to a community was established in Obninsk, Russia, in 1954.

The 1960s showed significant growth for nuclear energy. Utility companies across the country saw nuclear energy as economical, clean, and safe. Nuclear reactors do not pollute the air or produce greenhouse gases. They can be built in urban or rural areas, and do not radically alter the environment around them. 

The Pros of Nuclear Power

It’s sustainable. At the moment, the amount of uranium we have is not limitless. However, nuclear waste is recyclable. France and Japan have made great strides in this area. There is also a company, Transatomic, which is working on creating specialty designed reactors to take the waste from nuclear reactors and transform it into fuel. Typically, only 4% of the energy in uranium fuel is used.  The spent fuel rods hold huge amounts of untapped energy and they remain radioactive for thousands of years. The new reactor design consumes the waste, uses it for electricity, and reduces the radioactivity in the rods to hundreds of years instead of thousands.

It’s green. Nuclear energy doesn’t produce any carbon emissions, nitrogen oxide, or sulfur dioxide during the production of electricity. 

It’s a steady source of electricity. Nuclear power is the only source of energy that creates electricity 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It can work with alternate forms of power generation to “fill the gaps” when the electricity generated by wind and solar is low. It’s easy to turn the electricity production up or down as needed.

It’s efficient. The amount of energy that nuclear fission produces is ten million times greater than the amount released when burning a fossil fuel atom like oil or gas.

The Cons of Nuclear Power

Accidents can happen. There have been dramatic accidents at various nuclear plants around the world. The most well-known accident is Chernobyl in 1986 and the effects of that event can still be witnessed. It’s estimated that 15,000-30,000 people lost their lives in the aftermath and millions of Ukrainians are still struggling with health issues.  In 2011, the three cores at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant melted down and have caused serious environmental effects. In short, accidents with plants happen and they are difficult to predict.

There is nuclear waste. After the rods are used, there are smaller, radioactive atoms left behind. These atoms stay active for thousands of years and must be controlled and kept out of the environment for at least that long. Designing an appropriate system to handle the rods has proven to be difficult.

There is a high up-front investment. Nuclear plants are larger and more expensive than other power plants. Due to the amount of safety measures put into place, the upfront cost is significantly higher than a coal plant. The large initial cost keeps many from agreeing to finance a nuclear plant.

Nuclear reactorsDue to the cons listed above, the “rise” of nuclear power has stagnated. It creates 20% of the United States’ total electricity, but there is still a future for nuclear power in nuclear fusion. Fusion differs from fission in that instead of splitting an atom, you’re joining two atoms together. The sun in constantly undergoing nuclear fusion so such a process is absolutely possible.  Unfortunately, nuclear power plants do not have the ability to safely produce energy by nuclear fusion yet.  It’s not clear if this type of energy will ever be possible, but if we can unlock nuclear fusion and find a safe and reliable way to use (or dispose of) spent rods, nuclear energy can still be a contender in the energy industry.  

Learn more about your energy choices!

Topics: Energy, Renewable Energy, History