It’s almost humorous. Discussing nuclear energy as “alternate energy” is like calling the wheat in your bread a “grain substitute.” Yet, in reading a layman’s book on energy recently, the author practically apologized for his chapter on nuclear energy! “Many books do not include nuclear power as an alternate energy source, but I choose to because I consider alternative energy anything other than fossil fuel.” (De Gunther, p.129) These are interesting times. But, transitional times. I predict in one thousand years, mankind will look back on its history and consider the pre-nuclear energy era much like the era of cave dwellers, who used wood-fires for heat.
The author – and others – conclude that fossil fuels are what causes the planet so much harm, therefore, nuclear energy must at least be considered as a viable alternative. The author correctly pointed out that the source of all energy, the sun, is a huge nuclear reactor. In other words, our survival as a planet depends upon nuclear energy. Okay, do you catch the leap I made? The simple, true facts about our energy source tempt me, a young nuclear energy advocate, to overlook the difference between a natural nuclear reactor, like the stars and our sun, and a man-made nuclear reactor.
Nuclear energy is natural, but it is also complex enough to need to dig a little deeper. Go Nuclear! Inc. will try to simplify and convey the basic issues in and surrounding nuclear energy. When you explore nuclear energy a little further, you learn that nuclear reactions come in two basic forms: fission and fusion. The difference in the two processes is huge. Hydrogen nuclear fusion begets energy, such as what occurs in the sun, while nuclear fission converts energy by splitting uranium atoms, in commercial nuclear reactors.
In fusion, two hydrogen atoms are combined, or fused, to create a helium atom with slightly smaller mass. The lost mass is converted to energy. In contrast, uranium 235 - U 235 atoms fission, or split, by a high-speed neutron, emitting heat and neutrons, which continue in a chain reaction, creating more heat and neutrons. To be clear, there are no working fusion reactors at this time, although nuclear fusion technology has been used to create hydrogen bombs. There are only commercial atomic fission type reactors in use at this time.
In both, fusion and fission, energy production often gets lumped together with weapons production in the minds of the public. However, the technical processes for producing weapons and energy production remain distinctly different. Weapons and energy production should never be lumped together.
The main reason that nuclear energy remains on the list, for many, as “alternative energy” is not because the technology is really so unproven, so risky, so expensive, or so environmentally unsound. The main reason nuclear remains, like pork, the least favored, “other white meat,” is due to unfounded public fear, generated by hysteria, media, and special interest groups. What are some common fears?
1. Reactors can explode like an atomic bomb.
2. A massive release of radioactive elements could occur due to an accident.
3. Meltdowns can occur due to loss of coolants.
4. Normal operating conditions release radioactive particles, leading to birth defects, etc.
5. Waste heat damages the ecosystem.
6. Transit of radioactive materials will eventually lead to a hazardous accident.
7. Terrorists will steal radioactive materials, leading to disastrous consequences.
8. Containment and disposal of radioactive wastes will never be achieved.
Go Nuclear! Inc. will explore these questions in a series on “nuclear fear” in detail over the next two weeks. Despite recent events in Japan’s Fukushima plants, and past events in Russia’s Chernobyl and Pennsylvania’s Three Mile Island, we can report with confidence that commercial nuclear energy has been proven safe and sound. Nuclear energy will be not only regain its status as an excellent alternative energy source, it will likely surge ahead in the next decade to become the United State’s most valued energy source.
Source: DeGunther, Rik. Alternative Energy for Dummies. 2009.