Return to site

Is Nuclear Power Misunderstood?

· Nuclear Signature,Energy,Energy Technology,Sustainable Earth,Environment

Is Nuclear Power Misunderstood?

For many of us, the word ‘nuclear’ is fraught with feelings of fear and distrust. It is a word that inspires vivid imagery of billowing mushroom clouds, decimated cities, and patients afflicted with radiation poisoning.

Looking past the nuclear weapons of mass destruction that plagued the world during the Cold War, many frown upon nuclear power as terrible incidents such as Fukushima, Chernobyl, and Three Mile Island permeate today’s mental landscape.

However, as an extremely reliable energy source with zero carbon emissions, do the benefits of this technology outweigh its perceived risks?

Is the backlash against nuclear power deserved or misinformed?

Is nuclear power misunderstood?

First off, how does nuclear power even work?

Nuclear plants utilize the power of nuclear fission, the reaction that occurs when the nucleus of an atom splits into two or more smaller nuclei, releasing a tremendous amount of energy and heat.

Inside a reactor, neutrons collide with uranium atoms, causing them to undergo nuclear fission.

When these uranium nuclei split, they release more neutrons that collide with other uranium atoms, causing a chain reaction.

Using control rods that are made of materials that can absorb neutrons without themselves fissioning, this chain reaction can be controlled by the power plant operator.

All of this happens inside the reactor core, which is immersed in water. However, one can use any kind of cooling medium, including air. With the heat generated from the reaction, the water surrounding the reactor core is heated to about 520 degrees Fahrenheit, producing steam. This steam is finally used to spin turbines that are connected to generators, resulting in electricity.

Unlike traditional power plants that burn fuel in order to create the steam needed to turn the turbine, nuclear plants do not use any fuel to generate electricity, meaning they do not emit greenhouse gases in the process.

In 2019, nuclear power actually generated 55 percent of America’s carbon-free electricity, making it the largest domestic source of clean energy by far.

But isn’t nuclear fission the same exact mechanism by which nuclear weapons obtain their destructive power?

It is true that nuclear weapons and nuclear power plants both utilize the power of nuclear fission to carry out their goals; however, the way that the reactor core of a power plant is designed makes the near instantaneous release of energy seen in a nuclear bomb very unlikely or even impossible.

Nuclear bombs are designed to minimize the duration of the energy release. To achieve this, the uranium core of the bomb is shielded by a tamper, or a material that reflects neutrons.

This means that neutrons released by the uranium nuclei stay within the core of the bomb, forcing nuclear fission to occur at an increasing rate and releasing a tremendous amount of energy. Compare this to the reactor core of a power plant, where control rods are used to absorb neutrons in order to control the rate of the reaction.

Additionally, nuclear weapons typically have concentrations of uranium greater than 80% while nuclear power plants typically contain 3-5% uranium.

However, the recent disaster in Fukushima looms large in many people’s minds, the latest testament to the dangers of nuclear power.

Although the fission process was automatically shut down in response to the earthquake, the tsunami that happened alongside it damaged the generators that were needed to cool the reactors of the plant, causing those reactors to literally melt and spill their radioactive contents.

Even under regular conditions, don’t nuclear plants still jeopardize the environment by producing hazardous radioactive waste?

Yes, nuclear plants produce waste as do all other forms of energy production; however, nuclear fuel is extremely dense and takes up much less space than you would think.

According to the Department of Energy, all of the used nuclear fuel produced by the US over the last 60 years could fit on a football field at a depth of less than 10 yards.

Also, unlike other large energy-producing technologies, nuclear power is the only one that takes full responsibility for its waste. All nuclear waste is contained, managed, and regulated, none or which is allowed to pollute the environment.

High level waste, the most radioactive type of waste, can be dealt with in a number of ways, from being reprocessed to create new fuel to being kept in storage ponds at nuclear facilities to allow its radioactivity to naturally decay before disposing of it. All in all, compared to other forms of toxic industrial waste, nuclear waste is neither particularly dangerous nor hard to manage.

Despite the fact that nuclear power is not as dangerous as many people are led to believe, there is no doubt that there are serious risks that do come with it. But how do they compare to the risks of other energy sources?

Striking incidents such as nuclear meltdowns are broadcast worldwide and feature prominently in our minds; however, the more subtle and familiar dangers that are concealed in our everyday lives can be just as deadly. Burning fossil fuels releases toxic pollutants into the air such as noxious aerosols, particulate matter, and heavy metals.

The World Health Organization states that urban air pollution, a mixture of all the aforementioned materials, causes 7 million deaths per year.

The World Health Organization states that urban air pollution, a mixture of all the aforementioned materials, causes 7 million deaths per year.

Additionally, for each unit of energy generated, coal power plants actually release more radioactive material into the environment in the form of coal ash than waste from a nuclear power plant. In fact, a study done by the European Union concluded that among all major energy sources, nuclear power was actually the least deadly.

This figure is based on estimates from the European Union, which account for immediate deaths from accidents and projected deaths from exposure to pollutants.


There are technologies and protocols constantly being developed to insure safety and efficiency in the nuclear energy production process. A new generation of nuclear reactor, the pebble-bed reactor, is designed so that the nuclear chain reaction cannot cause a meltdown even when the reactor’s machinery completely fails, as it did in Fukushima.

Additionally, since previous disasters, geological stability considerations will play a much larger role in deciding the location for new plants. Obviously the devastating incidents that have happened in the past cannot be ignored, but with the development of new technologies and a strict focus on safety, we may learn from our mistakes and move forward accordingly.

Although a nuclear meltdown seems terrifying, it occurs extremely rarely, and for this reason, the total damage of nuclear power pales in comparison to the pernicious effects of other, much more common sources of energy.

One of the most significant benefits of nuclear energy is its reduced carbon footprint. Climate change has been recognized by the UN as “the most systemic threat to humankind.”

With a worldwide mission to reverse the effects of climate change, nuclear energy could prove to be a very effective source of clean energy, phasing out traditional power plants that require the burning of fossil fuels.

In the future, when we shape our discussion of the future implementation of this technology, it is essential that we base our opinions on the facts rather than our immediate gut reaction to the word ‘nuclear.’

Written by Kevin Ma & Edited by Alexander Fleiss

All Posts

Almost done…

We just sent you an email. Please click the link in the email to confirm your subscription!