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Nuclear power is an energy source that uses something called nuclear reactions to produce electricity. This happens at nuclear power plants, which are very large facilities. The source does not count as a renewable energy source as it is powered by radioactive substances, such as uranium. However, it is seen as clean energy since it has very low emissions of greenhouse gases.

Nuclear power is a highly debated subject. Mostly, because of the very serious accidents that have happened at the power plants in the past (read more below). But also due to the radioactive waste that it produces. Today, the source produces 10 % of the world’s electricity.

How does it work?

Broadly speaking, nuclear technology splits atoms to then capture the heat energy that is released in the process. This energy can generate steam that eventually turns the blades of a turbine to produce electricity. For example, the most common atom to split is uranium. This process is known as fission and is used by all of today’s power plants.

Nuclear power around the world

As mentioned above, the energy source accounts for about 10 % of the world’s electricity production. The first power stations started operating in the 1950s. Before that, the research on nuclear technology was focused on producing bombs. Today, the US generates the highest amount of energy from nuclear, followed by China, France and Russia. Yet, in the US, nuclear power only accounts for about 19.6 % of the country’s electricity. While France gets about 70 % of its energy from the source.

The debate

Nuclear power is a subject of controversy, causing disagreements between people and political parties. For some, it is seen as a solution to climate change. For others, it is seen as a great danger. This is because the energy source does not release large amounts of greenhouse gases. More so, a lot of energy can be generated efficiently. Yet, when looking at the full picture, this is not the case. As the extraction of uranium (fuel for nuclear) is an energy-intense process that uses other types of fuel and releases GHG emissions.

It is important to note that these power installations are vulnerable to incidents, accidents and attacks. Which can then release radioactive material. Radiation is very harmful and can, even in smaller quantities, cause death. It has also destroyed large areas in the past, which have been left uninhabitable (read more under “accidents with nuclear power”).

Furthermore,  the energy source creates radioactive waste. Which is a safety hazard for a very long time as it has to be stored somewhere in nature. Hence electricity from nuclear power plants is not considered “green electricity”.

Nuclear power is also argued for because it is seen as a cheap source of energy. Yet, power plants require expensive safety measurements and maintenance. In the past, the source was cheap as it did not have the safety requirements of today. In the 21st century, it is extremely expensive.

Accidents with nuclear power

There have been three major accidents with nuclear power:

  • Chernobyl, Ukraine, 1986
  • Harrisburg, USA, in 1997
  • Fukushima, Japan, 2011

The Chernobyl accident in Ukraine is one of the most famous accidents in the world. The area of the power plant became heavily radioactive and is still uninhabitable. The effect of the radioactive substances that spread through the accident was seen all over Europe. More so, the Fukushima plant, which was constructed to withstand earthquakes and tsunamis, was damaged by high tidal waves. The damage caused radioactive substances to spread to all surrounding areas. 

Example of source: Student energy, World-nuclear

 


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