Nuclear Energy Sources Revealed
The nuclear energy sources may be the fission of uranium, plutonium or thorium or it can be fusion of hydrogen into helium. What we refer to most commonly as the source of nuclear energy is uranium. From fission, one atom of uranium can produce ten million times the energy of one atom of burning carbon from coal.
Natural uranium is widely available and is a mixture of two isotopes. U-235 is the uranium that releases energy in a fission reaction while the second isotope, U-238 does not produce power.
Enriched uranium is most often used in nuclear reactors. To enrich U-235 the percentage of that isotope is increased while the percentage of U-238 is decreased.
This is part of the processing that has as its end result small pellets of enriched uranium. The process that is responsible for enriching natural uranium requires a separate plant which is an expensive proposition.
About 20% of the power in the U.S. is produced by nuclear energy. In the 90s there were 109 nuclear plants licensed in the U.S. and that number has not changed much since then. By 2007 there were 104 operating reactors and the percent of power from nuclear plants had reduced to 17%.
Expanding use of nuclear energy has been difficult due to the political of nuclear reactors. As time goes on, it is becoming clear that countries that adopted wide use of nuclear reactors as a power source twenty years ago are able to better manage their power needs. Five applications for new power plants are currently under consideration by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
The latest in nuclear technology is development of breeder reactor technology that will use uranium available in sea water. Uranium occurs in many of our natural resources. There is uranium in coal, in granite and in other forms of "stone" or rock.
Other Energy Sources
When nuclear energy is used, fuel is inexpensive and not subject to the vagaries of war and political unrest of any certain region of the world. The energy production is produce by a concentrated source and waste is greatly reduced. Uranium is easy and safe to transport and nuclear power produces no greenhouse gases or acid rain.
Nuclear energy is expensive because of the containment, emergency safety features and the cost of storing radioactive waste. It is waste storage that is the greatest barrier to increasing our production of nuclear energy in the U.S.
The radioactive nature of used fuel rods releases dangerous levels of radiation for hundreds of years. In our nuclear energy process we take a stable element (uranium) with few safety issues and through the fission process we transpose that uranium into a highly toxic radioactive material.
Fuel rods can be used for years before they must be replaced. However, old fuel rods must be stored and cooled with water on an ongoing basis year after year. There was a time when some proposed shooting nuclear waste far out into space but fortunately wiser heads prevailed.
Today, nuclear plants store fuel rods on property for the most part. There have been several areas designated for hazardous waste disposal. These are underground facilities often carved into mountain in areas of low population. The problem is the storage facilities fill up quickly and there a limit to how many dangerous storage facilities the public will approve.
Coal is inexpensive but the best coal (anthracite) has been mined to depletion. Coal is relatively easy to remove from the earth though the work is dangerous for those who work deeply underground in coal mines. Creating power through burning coal requires air pollution systems that are very expensive to remove various pollutants from the smoke released.
Burning coal contributes to global warming through release of greenhouse gases and is credited with creating acid rain. Transporting coal is safe but requires a large transport system to move huge amounts of coal from mines to power plants.
Hydroelectric power is an inexpensive way to produce electricity and the U.S. Government has invested a lot of money into this alternative energy source. However, hydroelectric power is a limited source of energy as huge dams must be built and placement is limited by the elevation of the water source.
Quite a few hydroelectric plants were built in past years but there is not a great future for hydroelectricity in the U.S. as the bodies of water conducive to building of dams is limited.
There are other downsides to hydroelectric power such as fish kill and flooding which destroys thousands of acres of farm crops each year. A dam that breaks can cause significant loss of property and life.
When it comes to gas and oil the distribution systems are well developed after years of producing power from oil and natural gas. Both are considered to contribute to global warming and are expensive energy generators.
The price swings can be steep is supply routes are cut off or public demand increases. Storage facilities and pipelines needed for liquefied natural gas have been met with opposition from environmentalists.
Today, we have the technology to build nuclear power plants with safety features. Nuclear power may be the only choice we are left with when fossil fuel reserves disappear as they will in time.