Happy Friday everyone!
We are rounding out the year here at ClimateRoots which means we are coming to an end of our focus on renewable energy! If you are looking to catch up on any of our earlier issues, check them out here. If you have any suggestions on our next topic, fill out our survey found here and at the top of today’s newsletter! For now, let's dive into one of the juiciest and most publicly contested forms of renewable energy out there; nuclear energy.
After first being introduced to the world in the form of the atom bomb, nuclear power has since been widely used to produce energy. Nuclear power has been used to produce electricity in the United States since 1958 and as of 2019, accounts for 20% of our national electricity production (U.S. Nuclear Industry - U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA)). In fact, the United States is the largest producer of nuclear energy in the world, accounting for 30% of global production (Nuclear Power in the USA - World Nuclear Association). Domestically, about 30 states have nuclear power plants, but they are relied upon to varying degrees for their energy production. Three states use nuclear power to generate over 50% of their state wide electricity; New Hampshire (61%), South Carolina (56%) and Illinois (54%) as of 2019 (Twelve U.S. States Generate More than 30% of Their Electricity from Nuclear Power - Today in Energy - U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA)). You may be familiar with some of the debate surrounding nuclear power plants in the US and abroad, a topic we will discuss in our next newsletter, but today we’re going to dive into how nuclear actually produces electricity.
The nitty gritty of nuclear fission:
Nuclear energy is produced by harnessing energy from the core of atoms through a process called nuclear fission. Atoms, or the building blocks for all matter in the universe, have a nucleus at the center which holds both protons and neutrons. The amount of protons and neutrons vary depending on the atom. These particles are held together in the nucleus by what is known as ‘the strong nuclear force’; when a nuclear reaction occurs, it is this force we are targeting because of its massive potential for energy release (Nuclear Explained - U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA)). Anybody else getting flashbacks to high school chemistry?
To release the potential energy held in the nucleus by ‘the strong nuclear force’, nuclear power plants initiate a chain reaction that splits the nuclei of atoms in half, known as (you guessed it) nuclear fission. First however, there must be something to fuel the reaction. For fission, uranium metal pellets are formed into metal tubes called fuel rods, which are bundled together by the hundreds to form a fuel assembly (“NUCLEAR 101”). Most power plants use uranium because the atoms are easily split apart and uranium metal is found in rocks worldwide (Nuclear Explained - U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA)).
When the reaction occurs, a rogue neutron is made to strike one of the uranium pellet atoms and splits its nucleus, releasing a ton of energy. This initiates a controlled chain reaction of atom splitting within the nuclear reactor (Nuclear Explained - U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA)). With each atom that splits, more energy is released. The fuel assemblies are immersed in water which acts as a moderator, and slows down the fission so the chain reaction can be maintained long term. The fission of the uranium atoms releases enough thermal energy to heat the water, thus creating steam which can power generators and produce electricity (May 14 and Ghosh).
There are a few key elements of nuclear energy production that I would like to draw your attention to. First off, having a controlled chain reaction is imperative; an uncontrolled nuclear reaction is the basis behind nuclear bombs. Second, all of the energy we currently produce under the guise of nuclear power comes specifically from nuclear fission (the splitting of the atom). You may have heard of another term called nuclear fusion. This is the joining of two atoms and requires extremely high temperature and pressure; it is the process that powers the Sun and one that we currently can’t reproduce here on Earth. While nuclear fission produces a million times more energy than other sources, nuclear fusion would produce 3-4 times more energy than fission (“Fission and Fusion”). Fusion also uses Hydrogen and creates Helium, a much cleaner alternative to the nuclear waste from fission. Unfortunately, fusion is still an energy source of the future.
Despite being lumped with renewable energy in the popular narrative, nuclear power is technically a non renewable source. Though uranium is found in rocks across the globe, the type of Uranium that is best used for fission (U-235) is very rare and therefore is not a renewable source (Society). Nuclear power is largely considered a carbon neutral source of energy, because nuclear reactors do not release air pollution or carbon dioxide. However the mining of uranium and construction of nuclear power plants both require large amounts of energy, usually derived from fossil fuels (Nuclear Power and the Environment - U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA)).
This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the complicated and controversial role that nuclear plays in our modern energy sector. Check back for more on this in next week's ClimateRoots, and don't forget to fill out our survey here, to tell us what you want to learn about in 2022!
“Fission and Fusion: What Is the Difference?” Energy.Gov, https://www.energy.gov/ne/articles/fission-and-fusion-what-difference. Accessed 2 Dec. 2021.
May 14, and 2020 Padmaparna Ghosh. “Nuclear Power 101.” NRDC, https://www.nrdc.org/stories/nuclear-power-101. Accessed 30 Nov. 2021.
“NUCLEAR 101: How Does a Nuclear Reactor Work?” Energy.Gov, https://www.energy.gov/ne/articles/nuclear-101-how-does-nuclear-reactor-work. Accessed 30 Nov. 2021.
Nuclear Explained - U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA). https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/nuclear/. Accessed 30 Nov. 2021.
Nuclear Power and the Environment - U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA). https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/nuclear/nuclear-power-and-the-environment.php. Accessed 2 Dec. 2021.
Nuclear Power in the USA - World Nuclear Association. https://world-nuclear.org/information-library/country-profiles/countries-t-z/usa-nuclear-power.aspx. Accessed 1 Dec. 2021.
Society, National Geographic. “Non-Renewable Energy.” National Geographic Society, 21 Feb. 2013, http://www.nationalgeographic.org/encyclopedia/non-renewable-energy/.
Twelve U.S. States Generate More than 30% of Their Electricity from Nuclear Power - Today in Energy - U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA). https://www.eia.gov/todayinenergy/detail.php?id=43256. Accessed 1 Dec. 2021.
U.S. Nuclear Industry - U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA). https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/nuclear/us-nuclear-industry.php. Accessed 1 Dec. 2021.