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The Nuclear Debate: A Power Solution for the Future or a High-Stakes Gamble?

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The dawn of sustainable energy sources and the rise of electric vehicles mark an era of growing environmental consciousness.  The once-distant green future is now within our grasp.  However, there remains a long-used energy source that continues to stand out as a contentious player in our race toward sustainability—nuclear power.   This divisive energy source remains loved by some, and feared by others, raising the question of whether it is the answer to our energy needs, or simply a gateway to a host of problems.

Nuclear Power: How Does It Work?

Nuclear power harnesses energy from atoms through a process called nuclear fission.  This process takes place within a nuclear reactor, where heavy atoms (e.g. Uranium, Plutonium) are bombarded with neutrons.  These collisions result in massive amounts of energy being released as the heavy atoms are split apart.  The energy released as heat from this interaction is then typically harnessed to fuel steam-powered turbines which are then used to create electricity.

Notably, this type of energy production does not emit carbon dioxide, making it a cleaner alternative to fossil fuels.  However, it also produces radioactive waste, posing significant environmental and safety challenges that need careful management.

The Nuclear Divide

At this point, the dual nature of nuclear power has sparked intense debates over its usage for decades.  On the one hand, it offers a large, low-carbon energy source that can potentially alleviate the climate crisis.  On the other, its production results in hazardous, radioactive waste, requiring secure, long-term storage facilities to prevent environmental damage and potential health risks   While they may have been outliers resulting from poor design or management, catastrophic accidents like Chernobyl and Fukushima only serve to further underscore these risks.

Adding to the challenges are the considerable costs and time necessary for the construction of nuclear power plants   These, coupled with public fear and regulatory hurdles, continue to undermine nuclear power's competitive standing, especially as renewables like wind and solar power continue to become cheaper and more efficient.

Adoption in 2023: Ontario, Canada

Despite the controversies, various regions around the world continue to move forward with the expansion of nuclear power   For example, Ontario, Canada, has recently announced that it will embark on a journey to enhance its nuclear energy capabilities in response to the growing demand for clean energy   This marks the first real growth in surrounding nuclear power in the province in over 30 years   Plans for expansion are said to include,

  • enlarging an existing plant to make it the world's largest
  • building three small modular reactors at another site.

This represents a considerable shift in an industry long stunted by safety concerns, cost issues, and the ghosts of past nuclear disasters.

By 2050, Ontario expects its electricity generating capacity to double to 88.4 gigawatts, driven by the adoption of electric vehicles, a transition away from fossil fuels, and population growth   To achieve this doubling in capacity, the Province also intends to turn to existing tried-and-true renewables like hydroelectric dams and wind power.

Simultaneously, Ontario is looking to solve the intermittency of renewable energy sources by expanding its energy storage capacity   It plans to increase its battery capacity 24-fold within the next three years and also invest more in pumped storage hydropower, a longer-duration storage option.

Exclusion in 2023: Germany

Meanwhile, Germany offers a counter-narrative, having just closed its last three nuclear power plants earlier this year, ending over six decades of nuclear energy usage within the nation.

However, the decision to abandon nuclear power has not been well-received by everyone   Advocates for nuclear power argue that abandoning nuclear power might lead to an increased reliance on fossil fuels, especially as the growth of renewable energy remains slow   However, proponents believe this step will catalyze the transition towards renewables, even as they grapple with the challenge of dealing with long-lasting radioactive waste.

With the decision to transition away from nuclear power, Germany has gone from a country once boasting 36 plants to 0.

A Financial Sinkhole? The U.S. Perspective

The United States offers another perspective on the nuclear question   Fortune notes that, despite investing an impressive $50 billion over two decades to revive its nuclear sector, the country has seen minimal returns   Alongside this, scandals involving corruption, the skyrocketing costs of projects, and the unresolved challenge of radioactive waste disposal continue to plague the sector.

In a bid to change this narrative, there has been a push towards small modular reactors (SMRs), promoted as safer, cheaper alternatives   But these carry their own set of risks, raising questions about the future of nuclear power in the U.S.

Nuclear Fusion: A New Hope?

As debates on nuclear fission continue, an alternative nuclear process—nuclear fusion— has emerged as a potential game-changer   Long a part of science fiction, we are slowly, but surely, inching our way towards conquering this ‘holy grail' of clean energy.

The reasons we view nuclear fusion as the holy grail of energy are varied   They include,

  1. Fuel abundance: Fusion uses isotopes of hydrogen, like deuterium and tritium, as fuel.  Deuterium can be extracted from seawater, and tritium can be produced from lithium, which is plentiful in the earth's crust.  This means the fuel for fusion is virtually unlimited and widely accessible.
  2. No high-level long-lived radioactive waste: Fusion does not produce high-level radioactive waste as fission does.  Some low-level waste will be produced, and components of the reactor will become radioactive over time, but these are much less of a problem than the long-lived radioactive waste from fission.
  3. Safety: There is no risk of a meltdown in a fusion reactor, as the process stops if conditions are not perfect.  Also, unlike in a fission reaction, there's no possibility of a runaway reaction in a fusion reactor, making it inherently safer.
  4. No greenhouse gases: Like fission, fusion doesn't emit greenhouse gases, making it a climate-friendly solution.
  5. No proliferation risk: Fusion doesn't involve materials that can be readily used to create nuclear weapons, reducing the proliferation risks associated with fission.

Unlike nuclear fission, which involves the splitting of heavy atoms, nuclear fusion is a process that involves combining light atomic nuclei, like hydrogen, to form a heavier atom, releasing tremendous energy.

However, achieving nuclear fusion on Earth is no small feat as it requires extremely high temperatures and pressures – each of which presents as significant challenges in our attempt to control and harness such reactions.

Despite its promise, the technical difficulties of achieving controlled fusion reactions are substantial, and the road to making nuclear fusion a practical reality is still long and winding.

Conclusion

The debate surrounding nuclear power reflects our ongoing struggle to balance the urgent need for sustainable, low-carbon energy with the inherent challenges and risks associated with these technologies   As we push the boundaries of innovation, it has become apparent that no energy source is without its drawbacks   Ultimately, the successful navigation of our green future will rely on a diversified energy portfolio, forward-thinking policy-making, and a commitment to both safety and sustainability.

Joshua Stoner is a multi-faceted working professional. He has a great interest in the revolutionary 'blockchain' technology.