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Nuclear energy

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Nuclear energy or nuclear power is produced by nuclear power plants using heat generated from a nuclear reaction (often nuclear fission) in a contained environment to convert water to steam. This powers generators to produce electricity. Besides nuclear fission, nuclear fusion is another technique which, however, is not yet being used to generate electricity for the mainstream consumers.

Nuclear power plants operate in most states of the US, in Japan, and across Europe. They produce about 20 percent of the USA's power. Nearly 3 million Americans live within 10 miles (16 km) of an operating nuclear power plant. According to the most recent review article on the sustainability of nuclear power -- as currently practiced in the U.S., nuclear power generated from nuclear fission is not a sustainable energy source.[1]

How it works

Nuclear power is a type of nuclear technology involving the controlled use of a nuclear reaction (ie nuclear fission) to release energy for work including propulsion, heat, and the generation of electricity.

Nuclear power production makes use of nuclear fissionW reactions that release the binding energyW of uraniumW atoms. In order to be used in the nuclear fuel cycle the uranium 235 in natural uranium must be concentrated. The primary type of nuclear power system used is a boiling water reactor.W

"Too cheap to meter"

"Our children will enjoy in their homes electrical energy too cheap to meter," he declared. ... "It is not too much to expect that our children will know of great periodic regional famines in the world only as matters of history, will travel effortlessly over the seas and under them and through the air with a minimum of danger and at great speeds, and will experience a lifespan far longer than ours, as disease yields and man comes to understand what causes him to age." Lewis L. Strauss Speech to the National Association of Science Writers, New York City, September 16th, 1954 [New York Times, September 17, 1954] [2].

This was the view of Lewis L. Strauss, chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission. This vision didn't happen for reasons such as each plant having to be tailored to fit the need of the surrounding area. New regulations (e.g. for reasons of safety) put constrains on construction. This hiked up costs of building.

The article "The Nuclear Cost Shell Game" - explains how the full costs of nuclear power plant construction, operation, decommissioning and accidents are shouldered by governments thereby disguising the real costs of nuclear power.

Government subsidies

The UK government in 2010 declared that it would allow additional nuclear plants to be built, but would not support them through subsidies - this included a refusal to act as insurer of last resort. This may effectively kill nuclear power as an option in Britain, especially considering the likelihood of increased insurance costs after the disaster in Japan in March 2011.

History of nuclear disasters

Many releases of nuclear material have occurred around the world. Advocates of nuclear power have argued that modern designs with proper safety considerations are failsafe or at least extremely safe, without the fundamental flaws in design and operation of earlier plants, particularly the Chernobyl plant. This claim appears much weaker in the light of the 2011 Japanese incidents.

2011 Japanese incidents

Several factors contributed to the Fukushima I nuclear accidentsW

  • Poor location close to the sea and very close to sea level. This made certain Japanese plants unprepared for a catastrophic earthquake plus tsunami (in an area where such catastrophes are known to be possible).
  • Lack of preparedness of pumps - some pumps had been inoperable for years[verification needed]
  • An unexpectedly large earthquake and tsunami - or to be more accurate, an inadequate safety margin.

Three Mile Island

On Three Mile Island in 1979 there was a partial core meltdown. Estimates are that the average dose to about 2 million people in the area was only about 1 millirem. To put this into context, exposure from a chest x ray is about 6 millirem. Compared to the natural radioactive background dose of about 100 125 millirem per year for the area, the collective dose to the community from the accident was very small. The maximum dose to a person at the site boundary would have been less than 100 millirem [3]. The Kemeny Commission Report concluded that "there will either be no case of cancer or the number of cases will be so small that it will never be possible to detect them. [4].The public on the other hand would blow this incident way out of proportion. This is largely because a popular movie came out weeks before called The China syndrome that put a negative connotation on nuclear energy and how its run.[verification needed]

1986 Chernobyl

The Chernobyl Disaster was a nuclear reactor accident at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine.It is considered to be the worst nuclear power plant disaster in history. Four hundred times more fallout was released than has been by the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. It caused 56 direct deaths (47 accident workers, and nine children with thyroid cancer), and estimated that there may be 4,000 extra cancer deaths among the approximately 600,000 most highly exposed people. This huge disaster could have been easily avoided had the cooling rods in the reactor didn’t act as a catalyst in the nuclear reaction.[verification needed] Another cause of the failure was the water channels that run through the core needed a more even distribution of water[5].

Types of Radiation

  1. Alpha radiation
  2. Beta radiation
  3. Gamma radiation

The advantages are

  • Lower emissions of many pollutants:
    • Less greenhouse gas emissions than fossil fuels -- although a recent study found that to both replace fossil-fuel-energy use (to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions) and meet the future energy demands, nuclear energy production would have to increase at such a large growth rate that a "cannibalistic" effect becomes important (i.e. nuclear energy must be used to supply the energy for future nuclear power plants.) [6][7] The cannibalistic effect however would too occur with any other type of new power plant (ie wind turbines, hydroelectric dams, ...)
    • Possibly less uranium emissions than coal,[verification needed] which contains traces of radioactive material, released into the atmosphere when burnt.
  • Long term fuel source with nuclear fuel recycling

The disadvantages are

Power generated from nuclear fission is not a sustainable energy source.[8]

  • Security issues:
    • Nuclear material cannot be, and has not been, kept safe from those who want it for violent and illegal purposes.[verification needed][neutrality disputed] Having more such material being transported, stored and handled, will inevitably increase that risk.[verification needed]
    • Transport and power generation activities are targets for terrorist attacks.
    • Most contemporary reactor types require enriched uranium. Enriched uranium can also be used to produce nuclear weapons. There is currently a move towards using reactors that use low/non enriched uranium to circumvent this. Some types of nuclear reactors do not need it at all.
  • Age issues:
    • Normally it is photovoltaics or wind turbines that gets blamed for having too short expected productive life span. Current nuclear power plants are very old, built in 1970's and 1980's. And they should out of safety reasons (material fatigue) be dismantled ( Decomissioning ) after 35-40 years to be safe enough. Many of european nuclear power plants are going through regular safety updates, that is expensive, to make them stay productive much longer than they were built for.
  • Environmental issues:
    • Accidents and emissions cannot be completely eliminated, at least not when using nuclear reactor designs that are not inheritly safe. Examples are the Three Mile Island and the 2011 Japanese disaster. It is recommended that those that live in the area of a nuclear reactor keep supplies of Potassium Iodide. [9]
    • Mining inevitably releases radioactive materials into the environment.
    • Decommissioning
  • Waste products
    • Depleted uranium is a by-product of the concentration process. This waste product would be completely eliminated with 4th generation power plants (see MYRRHA project, ..)

Liability issues and the indirect nuclear insurance subsidy

The potential liability from a nuclear accident/terrorist attack/natural disaster is so great that no nuclear power plant could be built if the owner had to pay for the full cost of liability insurance. Currently in the U.S. the liability is limited on liability for nuclear power plants under the Price Anderson Act (PAA). As former U.S. Vice-President Dick Cheney made clear when he was asked in 2001 whether the PAA should be renewed; he was quick to respond that without the PAA “nobody's going to invest in nuclear power plants”. [10] The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (USNRC) concluded the liability limits provided by nuclear insurance were significant as to constitute a subsidy, but a quantification of the amount was not attempted [11]. Shortly after this in 1990, Dubin and Rothwell were the first to estimate the value to the U.S. nuclear industry of the limitation on liability for nuclear power plants under the Price Anderson Act (PAA). Their underlying method was to extrapolate the premiums operators currently pay versus the full liability they would have to pay for full insurance in the absence of the PAA limits. The size of the estimated subsidy per reactor per year was $60 million prior to the 1982 amendments, and up to $22 million following the 1988 amendments [12]. In a separate article in 2003, Anthony Heyes updates the 1988 estimate of $22 million per year to $33 million (2001 dollars)[13], and also acknowledges that as he and Liston-Heyes simply corrected the methodology of Dubin and Rothwell's study and did not introduce new variables; the true subsidy estimates could actually be even higher. Heyes goes on to say: “Do Heyes and Liston-Heyes think that the true number might actually be 10 times bigger? Sure they do. Do they think that their number is closer to the truth than Dubin and Rothwell’s number? No, they do not” [14].

In case of an accident, should claims exceed this primary liability, the PAA requires all licensees to additionally provide a maximum of $95.8 million into the accident pool - totaling roughly $10 billion if all reactors were required to pay the maximum. This is still not sufficient in the case of a serious accident, as the cost of damages could very likely exceed the $10 billion [15][16][17]. According to the PAA, should the costs of accident damages exceed the $10 billion pool, the remainder of the costs would be fully covered by the U.S. Government. In 1982, a Sandia National Laboratories study concluded that depending on the reactor size and 'unfavorable conditions' a serious nuclear accident could lead to property damages as high as $314 billion while fatalities could reach 50,000.[18] A recent study found that if only this one relatively ignored indirect subsidy for nuclear power was diverted to photovoltaic manufacturing, it would result in more installed power and more energy produced by mid-century compared to the nuclear.[19] The results clearly show that not only does the indirect insurance liability subsidy play a significant factor for the viability nuclear industry, but also how the transfer of such an indirect subsidy from the nuclear to photovoltaic industry would result in more energy and more financial returns over the life cycle of the technologies. The energy results alone indicate renewable alternatives are a more viable option, let alone when other shortcomings and risks of nuclear power are added to the list: high construction costs, security and proliferation risks as well as the problems with the long term nuclear waste management. [20]


Although nuclear power is proposed as a partial solution to global warming, there is a general belief that this advantage outweighs its disadvantages, such as:

Addressing criticisms of nuclear energy

Note: this section needs to be supported with references from the peer-reviewed literature - please help by editing it.

This is an attempt to engage with some of the issues, addressing some of the criticisms made of nuclear energy:

  • Although in theory, renewable energy can meet the world's energy needs - e.g. see Beyond Zero Emissions, there is still the issue that most renewable energy production plants can not generate power continuously. Storage of power is a partial solution, which can be coupled to load shifting, energy conservation, and smart grid policies. It should be noted that most options to store power also have an ecological impact (i.e. electrochemical (EC) batteries require chemicals to operate and need to be replaced every 5-7 years or so, depending on the type of EC battery)
  • The idea that there is only 60 years of uranium left is geologically debatable. Further, it is possible to expand the supply of uranium through the use of breeder reactors and "fourth generation" nuclear reactors.
  • Radioactive waste can be stored effectively, particularly using means like the Australian Synroc. Further, the radioactivity of the waste does not persist for hundreds of thousands of years - more like thousands - and claims about its radioactivity represent fundamental misunderstandings about the nature of radioactive decay.
  • It's unfair to claim that pro-nuclear people have vested interests. Some do. Some don't. Some anti-nuclear people are running solar cell firms, or have jobs which depend on their viewpoint. But logically you can be both right and have a vested interest. Accusations of vested interest should be made with care, lest they reflect back on you.
  • Construction - putting things in place, wiring them up and testing, is not a particularly CO2 intensive process. The mere fact that a nuclear power plant takes some time to construct does not mean its CO2 load is particularly high. Calculations do point to the CO2 effectiveness of power plants, and wind farms use more metal to fabricate than a nuclear plant able to generate the same power would need.[verification needed]
  • We do other things which generate CO2 than just produce energy, and nuclear plants do take some time to come on line. Certainly, we should do other things to reduce global CO2. But that does not stop nuclear power from having a part to play.
  • Hot rocks and burning garbage are important potential energy sources. Just as we might point to nuclear power distracting us from other options, we can point to wind and solar distracting us from these other important renewable energy sources.please expand
  • We do need to consider the steps needed to make a technology viable, be it fourth generation nuclear reactors, clean coal, wind, solar and other renewables, even fusion power.
  • The Australian political scene, with Howard promoting Nuclear Power, is more complex than would first appear. Howard did, for example, implement changes to the Building Code of Australia which controlled energy usage.please expand
  • Nuclear reactors may be difficult to insure, but this could be because they are not standardised. Further, it is interesting that many anti-nuclear activists challenge market operation in other areas, but assume the insurance market is perfect at assessing risk.
  • If we (in Australia) were to export uranium and store the resultant nuclear waste, we could prevent weapon proliferation.[verification needed] Further, ethically it is strange to be happy to sell something with significant consequences in its use but take no responsibility for them.

This section includes ideas based on Thoughts on Nuclear Power by JohnAugust.

Types of nuclear reactor


"I reckon we do need one small reactor on each continent to provide isotopes for diagnostics, but there are three main problems with conventional nuclear power: there’s the risk of meltdown; the problem of radioactive waste … and reactors produce [nuclear] weapons fuel.
"I’m in favour of some types of nuclear power which don’t have these problems. Unfortunately political leaders aren’t interested in [these alternative designs, i.e. thorium] because they want the nuclear weapons." - Karl Kruszelnicki[21]

Integral fast reactor

The Integral fast reactor is a type of fast reactor with breeding capabilities.

Nuclear Energy vs. Renewable Energy



Suggested projects

  • How does nuclear energy compare with renewable energy sources for total financial cost to the community (i.e. if no subsidies or equal subsidies were given to all forms of energy production)?[Suggested project]
  • How does nuclear energy compare with renewable energy sources for total greenhouse gas emission? All energy should be assessed, including energy used in accessing the raw materials (e.g. uranium for nuclear power and silica for solar cells) and making the energy producing devices (nuclear power plants, solar cell arrays, wind turbines).[Suggested project]
  • How does modern nuclear power compare with coal for the release of radioactive material into the environment? Consider all aspects, including mining and power generation.[Suggested project]

See also


  1. Pearce J.M. Limitations of Nuclear Power as a Sustainable Energy Source. Sustainability. 2012; 4(6):1173-1187. open access
  2. Too Cheap to Meter?
  3. Backgrounder on the Three Mile Island Accident
  4. wikipedia: Three Mile Island accident
  5. wikipedia:Chernobyl disaster
  6. POST report comparing energy production plants' lifecycle
  7. Pearce, J. M. “Thermodynamic Limitations to Nuclear Energy Deployment as a Greenhouse Gas Mitigation Technology”, International Journal of Nuclear Governance, Economy and Ecology 2(1), pp. 113-130, 2008.
  8. Pearce J.M. Limitations of Nuclear Power as a Sustainable Energy Source. Sustainability. 2012; 4(6):1173-1187. open access
  9. FDA Frequently Asked Questions on Potassium Iodide (KI)
  10. Reuters, 2001. “Cheney says push needed to boost nuclear power”, Reuters News Service, May 15, 2001.[1]
  11. United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission, 1983. The Price-Anderson Act: the Third Decade, NUREG-0957
  12. Dubin, J. A. and Rothwell, G. S. 1990. Subsidy to Nuclear-Power through Price-Anderson Liability Limit, Contemporary Policy Issues, 8, 73-79.
  13. Heyes, A. 2003. Determining the Price of Price-Anderson, Regulation, 25(4), 105-110.
  14. Heyes, A. 2003. Determining the Price of Price-Anderson, Regulation, 25(4), 105-110.
  15. U.S. Department of Energy. 1999. Department of Energy Report to Congress on the Price-Anderson Act, Prepared by the U.S. Department of Energy, Office of General Council. Accessed 20 August 2010. Available:
  16. Reuters, 2001. “Cheney says push needed to boost nuclear power”, Reuters News Service, May 15, 2001.[2]
  17. Bradford, P. A. 2002. Renewal of the Price Anderson Act, Testimony before the United States Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works Subcommittee on Transportation, Infrastructure and Nuclear Safety, January 23, 2002.
  18. Wood, W.C. 1983. Nuclear Safety; Risks and Regulation. American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, Washington, D.C. pp. 40-48.
  19. I. Zelenika-Zovko and J. M. Pearce, “Diverting Indirect Subsidies from the Nuclear Industry to the Photovoltaic Industry: Energy and Economic Returns”, Energy Policy 39(5):2626-2632 (2011).
  20. I. Zelenika-Zovko and J. M. Pearce, “Diverting Indirect Subsidies from the Nuclear Industry to the Photovoltaic Industry: Energy and Economic Returns”, Energy Policy 39(5):2626-2632 (2011).
  21. Dr Karl Kruszelnicki,W Australian Climate Change Coalition candidate, Dr Karl: 'Keep trying on all fronts', interview with Green Left Weekly, 19 November 2007.

External links