Nuclear Power

November 17, 2011
Nuclear power is a great form of energy. A small amount of nuclear material will produce a large amount of energy. Because of this, it will last longer than fossil fuels. Unfortunately, just like a lot of energy/fuel sources, there is a downside. While it does not pollute the air, it creates dangerous waste products. If scientists can find a way to produce the energy and take away the harmful bi-products, then nuclear power can be a reliable source of energy.

Energy is produced through nuclear reactions by two means; fusion and fission. The process of fusion happens when two nuclei (center of the atom) are forced together creating a larger nucleus. “The Sun and other stars make heat and light by [fusion] reactions” (Nuclear Energy 4). Fission occurs when a neutron is hurtled toward a nucleus, thereby breaking the nucleus in half and converting the lost mass to energy. This is the nuclear reaction used in nuclear power plants. Nuclear reactions create more than a million times the amount of energy than that of chemical reactions. Be that as it may, it also creates problems for the environment.

In nuclear power plants, they make controlled nuclear reactions. When the material used to make these reactions is depleted, they have to put the waste somewhere. The problem is that just because it cannot make reactions anymore, it is still radioactive. If something is radioactive, it means that the atom’s nucleus is unstable. Radioactive substances emit alpha and beta particles as well as gamma rays, which can give a person serious illnesses – like cancer – if they come near it. The most common elements used are uranium and plutonium, which have a half-life (how long it stays radioactive) of 700 million years and 24,000 years respectively. So obviously it stays dangerous for a long time. Also, “Nuclear explosions produce radiation” (Nuclear Energy 13). Most bombs, after exploding, do not do any further damage to the environment. Nuclear bombs on the other hand emit radiation miles from the impact site.

The governments, as well as scientists, do not really have a strong, described solution for it right now. What they do when the material becomes unusable, is put it in a huge pool of “heavy water” (H3O) that is located at the plant. After it has spent five years in the pools, it is then placed in massive concrete containers to protect people from radiation. It is then transported to sites like Yucca Mountain; far from the population. But because of the chance of radiation to people and the environment, some people oppose the use of nuclear energy. Plus, “Nuclear reactors only last for about forty to fifty years” (Nuclear Energy 13). Since the reactor will have traces, they will have to have a way to get rid of them without putting anyone in danger.

A proposed solution that scientists are trying is to use nuclear fusion instead of fission in the reactions. During fusion, there is very little radioactive waste left over, and it is very short-lived. It also produces about 500 times more energy than fission. The only problem is fusion can only occur at extremely high pressure and causes extreme temperatures. Right now, fusion only occurs naturally in stars. “On Earth, nuclear fusion was first reached in the explosion of the Hydrogen bomb” (Fusion Reactions 4). And even then, you need a fission bomb to create the heat and pressure necessary to start the fusion reaction. There have been some experiments that have actually succeeded in controlled fusion, but only on a small scale. Scientists are trying to find a way to cause cold fusion. If this were possible then we could stop using the hazardous materials needed for fission reactions and eliminate the bad effects to the environment. “Presently, nuclear energy provides for approximately 16% [of the world’s power]” (Nuclear Energy 1), so imagine how much energy we could create with fusion reactions, especially when people will not be worried about the waste. Plus, there is enough fusionable material to last billions of years.

While nuclear power does hurt the environment, it is extremely beneficial to us. It powers one-sixth of the world. But, it still causes less harm to the environment than fossil fuels and scientists are still working to find a way to make it safer. Overall, nuclear energy creates more positive outcomes than negative ones, and eventually, if scientists succeed, will not pose a threat to the environment in the future.





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