Many have billed nuclear fuel as a utopian source of electricity: efficient and potentially limitless. A modern nuclear reactor generates 34 years worth of electricity from 1 kg of fuel, but it has declined from accounting for 18% of the world electricity market in 1996 to 11% today; experts expect it to drop further. In the video below, M. V. Ramana, of Princeton University’s Program on Science and Global Security, and Sajan Saini, a writer and lecturer in the Princeton Writing Program, explain the problems with this mode of producing energy .
The two biggest issues with nuclear energy are the set-up costs for its production and dealing with the waste from that production
Nuclear power relies on fission of the uranium-235 nuclei that perpetuates the initial split in other nuclei in an environment moderated by control rods. The power garnered from this process is used to heat water, which in turn powers an electric turbine generator. If the flow of water being heated stops, it can result in a meltdown where the uranium particles melt, releasing radioactive vapors which can escape into the air if security protocol fails.
Every couple of years, a portion of the spent fuel — composed of uranium that failed to fission, the products of fission, and plutonium — is removed from the reactor to be stored in water which both cools it and blocks its radiation. This decay can take up to hundreds of thousands of years. In addition to this, plutonium can be siphoned off to make bombs, posing a security risk not only from accidental discovery but also deliberate weaponization that could result in devastating effects.
Scientists are currently working on methods that utilize the same principles without these negative externalities, though, meaning that nuclear fuel could become the solution to the world’s energy crisis. And, hey, if Micheal Shellenberger says it, there must be some reason behind it…