The debate on the best method to power the world has been going on for decades. One of the most divisive topics for discussion is whether to choose nuclear energy versus renewables, such as solar, wind, geothermal, and hydropower energy. Much of the arguments are influenced by emotions rather than logic, especially when evaluating cases dealing with energy. Psychologists even acknowledge that people have a fear against nuclear power, associating it with atomic bombs and world devastation.
However, a more rational approach is needed if humanity is to decide on the best course of action to mitigate climate change. Probably one of humanity’s worst impending disasters, global warming by even just a few degrees can radically alter life on the planet, endangering millions of lives. The stakes are high, making energy conversations such as this debate necessary for our collective future.
Nuclear Energy In A Nutshell
A nuclear power plant shares many core technologies with power plants that rely on fossil fuels such as coal or oil. A boiler vaporizes water into steam, which is used to turn a set of turbines attached to an electricity generator. They only differ by where the heat used to boil the water is coming from.
Whereas conventional plants burn fossil fuels, nuclear power plants use the energy released by nuclear fission, a process that splits uranium atoms apart and releases tremendous amounts of energy.
How Renewables Work
Unlike other types of energy sources, renewables exploit naturally occurring flows of energy. For example, solar cells utilize the vast amounts of energy that the sun irradiates on the surface of the planet, while wind currents drive windmills. Hydropower uses the flow of water through rivers to drive turbines connected to generators. Geothermal technology uses heated rocks found underground to generate steam used to drive turbines, making geothermal power plants reminiscent of other conventional plants.
Both nuclear and renewable technologies promise to offer lower costs, although the details vary. Operating a nuclear power plant can provide massive amounts of cheap energy. However, the cost of storing fuel and waste products, which both emit dangerous amounts of radiation, can significantly add to capital and operating costs.
Renewable technology costs can vary, but solar and wind are poised to become cheaper than fossil fuels for utility-scale productions. Solar power plants may have high capital costs due to the expensive electronics required. However, the decreasing price of silicon, the main component of solar cells, means that capital costs are projected to become cheaper over the years. Operating costs are meager, as solar cells and windmills can be managed more passively than other power plants.
Nuclear power plants can operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Occasional shutdowns may be required to be able to conduct safety inspections and maintenance procedures. The power output of nuclear power plants means that they used as baseload plants, which are intended to supply the bulk of a nation’s energy needs.
In contrast, many renewable energy technologies are more intermittent, such as solar and wind technologies. These power sources are dependent on sunlight and wind, which can vary wildly on a timescale of hours. Hence, solar and wind cannot be used as baseload plant by themselves.
A proposed solution for this is energy storage, which allows electricity to be stored and stably distributed to the grid. However, energy storage technologies are still expensive for the most part, which can increase the cost of adopting solar and wind energy sources.
Hydropower and geothermal are relatively more stable sources of power. However, they are only applicable in specific locations, especially for geothermal power plants. Dams, which are a common form of hydropower technology, require the flooding of upstream areas, which can lead to the displacement of local flora and fauna.
The typical response of people towards nuclear energy is that of fear. However, modern safety standards have drastically reduced the number of accidents in nuclear power plants. Nevertheless, the potential for damage is high, as the release of radioactive substances can devastate the local environment. Wind currents can also carry radioactive particles far from the original release site. Renewables also have their own set of safety issues, including bird kill from windmills as well as river degradation from hydropower dams.
Another problem is waste disposal: nuclear plants produce radioactive waste that needs to be secured for thousands of years, while renewables may use heavy metals such as cadmium that can be harmful to the environment.
The choice of energy source will depend on the particular needs of a nation, as well as what they are willing to sacrifice.