Nuclear power – how does it work, and is it safe and green???

su Nuclear power – how does it work, and is it safe and green???

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With our world rapidly going down the hill as far as the climate and pollution is concerned, people are looking for a real solution to the problems.  Whether you look at carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, or other environmental toxins, something needs to be done.  Among the future power options are solar, wind, water, geothermal, and possibly nuclear.

Nuclear power has been around for decades.  It is debated as to whether this type of power is safe OR green.  The purpose of this article is not to argue one way or the other.  The purpose is to educated the masses, and then let you decide for yourself.

So, how does a nuclear reactor work?  Do they stick something like a nuclear bomb in a box, and control the explosion to somehow generate electricity?  In short form, the answer would be a definite no.  Generating electricity from nuclear is both very simple, and very complex.  It is simplistic in that it only requires a nuclear fuel, water, some way to capture the heated water (steam), a turbine, and some type of generator.  The complexity comes from all the safety controls involved.

In regular nuclear fission reactions (such as in a nuclear power plant), a uranium atom is split, giving off by-products (radioactive waste, anyone?) and heat.  This heat is then used to heat water, which then converts into steam, which then drives a turbine, which drives a generator, which makes electricity…  *phew*  So, aside from the nuclear reaction, we’re looking at basically the same thing that hydroelectric power does – water turns a turbine that etc., etc., etc.

So what’s the big deal?  Well, have you ever heard of Chernobyl?  It was a soviet-era nuclear plant that exploded, and was quite horrible (in fact, to this day, I believe the town that was nearby is still unpopulated and unfit for habitation).  So naturally people are a little upset to have a nuclear power plant move in next door.  This is of course in addition to the nuclear waste that has to be disposed of somewhere, hopefully without contaminating things like groundwater (which most people use for drinking).  So, what types of things might make a person turn pro-nuclear?

For one thing, western nuclear plants have multiple safety processes in place.  Chernobyl happened due to a failed safety test, where safety protocols were suspended in order to test a new shut-down protocol.  Chernobyl (like most soviet nuclear plants) did not have a containment vessel around the reactor – all western plants have some sort of containment vessel, so that in the event of an explosion, the core isn’t exposed to air, and radioactive materials cannot escape.

Another key safety feature is control rods.  These are made of an element that basically absorbs the nuclear reaction.  Normally, these rods are inserted and withdrawn to control how much power is being generated (via heat generation).  In the event of a problem, a computer control automatically inserts the control rods (drops them, actually) into the reactor, immediately stopping all nuclear activity.

There are some other safety protocols in the larger reactors, but we’ll stick with those basic ones.  On to the next thing – “green” energy.  Nuclear reactions have zero particulate emissions – the only thing emitted is water vapor.  Some would argue that that is a particulate, but as the water vapor joins what is already in the air and falls as rain elsewhere, I wouldn’t be inclined to agree.  This is why nuclear power is being toted as a green energy source – it does not contribute to pollution or climate change.

But there is one negative thing about nuclear reactions that we have not found a way to get rid of – nuclear waste.  What do you do with tons of radioactive waste?  Some argue for burying it onsite, some for shipping it to be buried in a location far from habitation (Yucca mountain???), but all agree – it has to be taken care of.  I think that this will be the key that will make or break nuclear power as an energy source.

Just a quick note – the US gets about 19% of its power from nuclear plants.  Of course, this is quite a lot of energy compared to the rest of the worlds usage, but we get most of our energy from coal and gas.  Some countries, on the other hand, are nearly completely nuclear – France, for instance, gets about 80% of its electricity from nuclear power.  So, you can imagine that almost none of France’s pollution problems come from energy generation.  So how the heck do they get rid of all that nuclear waste? For one thing, they recycle the heck out of the waste, gathering all the plutonium and spent uranium, and making new fuel rods.  The high level waste for a family of 4 for 20 years is a glass tube the size of a lighter.

But, there are a lot of families in France.  To date, I don’t think even they have a permanent solution.  I believe that some of it gets shipped out (waste disposal, laughably, is semi-classified).  But, if it can be solved, permanently, then nuclear may just get a shot at being a green fuel.

What’s the answer?  Is nuclear power green, or can it ever be green?  You decide.

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2 Responses to “Nuclear power – how does it work, and is it safe and green???”

  1. That was an excellently balanced report.

  2. Thanks John – I try to be mostly impartial! ;)

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