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Nuclear Energy

Nuclear energy is a type of energy created by splitting apart uranium atoms. It does not produce greenhouse emissions; however, it is not technically renewable since we could use up all of the element uranium one day.


Key Terms

  • Uranium: a very dense metal element.

  • Turbine: a machine that produces electrical energy when its blades turn.

  • Radioactive: something releasing radiation, generally considered dangerous.

  • Sustainable energy: energy that uses a fuel source that is not renewable but that we will not run out of for a very long time.

  • Fuel pellets: The small cylindrical units that uranium is packed into

  • Fuel rods: Long sticks of uranium, made of packed fuel pellets on top of each other.

  • Condenser: a machine that turns water vapor back into liquid water.

How it Works

Uranium mining and milling: Nuclear energy is generated in nuclear power plants. However, the process starts sooner than that. First, uranium, a very dense metal, must be mined from the earth. This process is difficult, similar to mining coal. However, uranium produces 20,000 times as much energy as the same amount of coal. Therefore, nuclear energy requires significantly less mining.

Next, the uranium is sent to a uranium mill. The uranium mill removes extra minerals accidentally scooped up, adds chemicals, increases the percent of uranium-235 molecules (a certain type of uranium molecules), and turns the uranium into fuel pellets. The fuel pellets are stacked together to make fuel rods, which go into the nuclear reactor.

Inside nuclear power plants: Nuclear reactors are kept in factory-like buildings called nuclear power plants. Inside these power plants, there are nuclear reactors. Water (and sometimes other liquids) are pumped into a container with the fuel rods, which make up a nuclear reactor. Inside the fuel rods, a chain reaction starts. One uranium atom breaks apart, producing heat and separating into different pieces, including a very small particle called a neutron. When the neutron breaks apart from the atom, the neutron shoots away. That neutron will then bump into another atom and cause that atom to break, beginning a chain reaction.

As all of the atoms break apart one at a time, heat is released into the water, turning it into steam. The rest of the process is remarkably similar to geothermal energy. The steam powers a turbine. That turbine is attached to a generator which generates electricity as the turbine turns. After it powers the turbine, the steam is turned back into water in a condenser so that it can keep going through the nuclear reactor and doing the same thing again.

Disposing of nuclear waste: Most fuel rods can last for around six years, and then they need to be disposed of. Because they last so long and each produces so much energy, nuclear energy creates very little waste. However, the waste it creates is very radioactive and must be stored in secure facilities, often underground, because of how dangerous they are.

How it is Renewable Energy

While nuclear energy is technically not renewable because we will eventually run out of uranium, that won’t occur for hundreds of years. Furthermore, nuclear energy is sustainable energy. Once the world runs out of uranium, we can't get anymore. Scientists are also trying to figure out ways to reuse the uranium after being in the nuclear reactor. It is very likely that one day, we will find a way to recycle used uranium, and then, nuclear energy will be fully renewable. Nuclear energy isn't renewable until then, but it is sustainable energy.

Advantages and Disadvantages


Nuclear energy is advantageous in many ways. The electricity produced in nuclear power plants isn't dependent on other things, such as wind level or sunlight, creating a constant and reliable flow of electricity. Another significant advantage is that nuclear power plants do not pollute or produce greenhouse gas emissions, meaning that using nuclear energy does not contribute to climate change.

Negative Impacts

One disadvantage is that nuclear energy can be dangerous. First, radioactive waste can be very harmful if not disposed of correctly. There have also been seven times in history when something has gone wrong in a nuclear power plant, and many people were hurt. The biggest issue with nuclear power plants is that when things do go wrong, radiation from the plant can go far, and many people could potentially be hurt or have to evacuate their homes. When the containment isn’t perfect, nuclear power plants can be dangerous to those who live nearby. If small amounts of radiation leak out, it can cause health issues like cancer. On top of that, uranium mining can also be dangerous. If done incorrectly, it can spread radioactive dust and radon gas to people who live near uranium mines, leading to long-term health issues in nearby communities.

Conclusion: Our Take

Because nuclear energy is so dangerous, governments must carefully regulate it to ensure that nothing goes wrong and all waste is safely stored. So long as it is safely kept, we support nuclear energy. Although transferring our energy to entirely renewable sources would be ideal, that will take a lot of time and money. Since nuclear energy doesn't pollute, it is a convenient replacement for some fossil fuels in use now. As the Union Of Concerned Scientists put it, well-regulated nuclear power is “in everyone's best interest” because of its energy-producing abilities and carbon emission-free nature. America's Department Of Energy feels similarly: because of its ability to reduce carbon emissions, the DOE supports using it as a step closer to becoming a carbon-free nation. We support switching energy from fossil fuel sources to safe nuclear energy.


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