|Energy: A Historical Perspective and 21st Century Forecast|
|Series||Studies in Geology|
|Chapter||Sources of Energy|
|Author||Dr. Amos Salvador|
|PDF file (requires access)|
Energy obtained directly or indirectly from the nuclei of atoms has been called nuclear power. The large nuclei of high-atomic-weight elements, particularly uranium and plutonium, can be split apart into smaller particles, a process called fission. The nuclei of low-atomic-weight elements, hydrogen or isotopes of hydrogen, on the other hand, can be combined to form larger nuclei in a process called fusion. In both cases, energy is released. Both are considered as sources of nuclear energy, but only fission is technologically feasible at present and is the type of nuclear reaction used to produce steam in all operating plants for the generation of electricity.
Nuclear fusion is likely to remain an elusive ideal for many decades and may never become a feasible source of energy. A self-sustaining fusion reaction has, as of 2005, not yet been achieved in the laboratory, and at this time, the development of a commercial fusion reactor during the 21st century appears improbable. Enthusiasm and funding for research on fusion has diminished appreciably in the last few years.
At the time when the world is becoming increasingly concerned about the discharge of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other harmful gases and particulates into the atmosphere, and about the presumed resulting global warming (for which oil-, gas-, and mostly coal-burning electricity-generating plants are blamed), nuclear electric plants have the indisputable advantage, along with hydroelectric plants, of being the only potential large-scale suppliers of electricity that do not contribute polluting combustion products to the environment. Nuclear power plants generate electricity without combustion. In addition, the fuel is so concentrated that only small amounts are needed per unit of energy delivered.
Other advantages of nuclear power put forward by its supporters are that it is cheaper and safer than other means of generating electricity (both of which are questioned by its detractors) and, potentially, an almost inexhaustible source of energy. This is particularly the case if the fast breeder reactors, which can generate (breed) new fuel (i.e., convert uranium 238 into plutonium) in quantities as large as, or even larger than, the amount consumed, can be accepted and operated safely and economically.
Rhodes and Beller capably defend the desirability of nuclear power. Concerning the disputed cost advantage, they state
Larger nuclear power plants require larger capital investments than comparable coal or gas plants only because nuclear utilities are required to build and maintain costly systems to keep their radioactivity from the environment. If fossil-fuel plants were similarly required to sequester the pollutants they generate, they would cost significantly more than nuclear power plants do.
Defending the safety of nuclear power, they remind us of the recurring and deadly coal-mine accidents, of the oil- and gas-plant fires and pipeline explosions, not to speak of the deaths caused by air pollution. By comparison, they state
Nuclear accidents have been few and minimal.... As for the Chernobyl explosion (the only major nuclear accident resulting in many fatalities), it resulted from human error in operating a fundamentally faulty reactor design that could not have been licensed in the West.
As another great advantage of nuclear power, they mention
...its ability to wrest enormous energy from a small volume of fuel.
Supporters of nuclear power believe that it will not only be a preferable source of electricity but will also be a necessary, even essential, one if the inevitable future increases in demand for electricity throughout the world are to be met.
However, there are serious reasons for concern about nuclear power plants. Most worrisome problems are the disposal of the high-level radioactive waste (HLW), the product of the operation of nuclear reactors; the radioactivity of the plutonium generated as a result of the fission reaction, particularly in the case of the breeder reactors; and the possibility that the availability of the high-grade plutonium may increase the possibility of the manufacture of nuclear weapons.
Because of these concerns, intensely scrutinized and widely publicized in the press, television, and journals and stridently magnified by vocal environmental organizations, there is now a lack of public confidence in nuclear power. Mistaken public perception of the reality of nuclear power has resulted in a strong opposition to the increase in electric generation in nuclear plants.
Beck summarizes the situation by stating
The worldwide future of nuclear energy is a highly disputed subject; one side is certain that nuclear energy will have to expand in the next century to meet energy demand, whereas the other side is equally certain that this energy form is too dangerous and uneconomical to be of long-term use.
Both sides believe so strongly in the logic of their case that they see the opposition as either illogical or deliberately untruthful and, therefore, not worth talking to.... Both parties try to convince the public that their position is correct, and it has to be said that in most democratic countries the antinuclear lobbies seem to have been more convincing. Although this has convinced only a few governments to withdraw from the production of nuclear energy, it has made politicians reluctant to be seen to support nuclear power, so that decisions that are needed, such as the destination of nuclear waste, are not made; thus, the industry is drifting.
Beck believes that despite the drawbacks of the use of nuclear power in the generation of electricity
...there is a strong case for keeping the option for nuclear expansion open. Yet, there has to be doubt whether today's technology is adequate for such expansion.
- Salvador, Amos, 2005, Energy: A historical perspective and 21st century forecast: AAPG Studies in Geology 54, 208 p.
- Rhodes, R., and D. Beller, 2000, The need for nuclear power-Viewpoint on the world's challenging energy future: International Atomic Energy Agency Bulletin, v. 42, no. 2, p. 43-50.
- Rhodes, R., and D. Beller, 2000, The need for nuclear power-Viewpoint on the world's challenging energy future: International Atomic Energy Agency Bulletin, v. 42, no. 2, p. 47.
- Rhodes, R., and D. Beller, 2000, The need for nuclear power-Viewpoint on the world's challenging energy future: International Atomic Energy Agency Bulletin, v. 42, no. 2, p. 48.
- Beck, P. W., 1999, Nuclear energy in the twenty-first century-Examination of a contentious subject: Annual Review of Energy and the Environment, v. 24, p. 113.
- Beck, P. W., 1999, Nuclear energy in the twenty-first century-Examination of a contentious subject: Annual Review of Energy and the Environment, v. 24, p. 114.