Nuclear Power and the Energy Crisis

By Hodgson, P. E. | Modern Age, Summer 2008 | Go to article overview

Nuclear Power and the Energy Crisis

Hodgson, P. E., Modern Age

The previous article in this series drew attention to the energy crisis that faces the world today. Energy is essential to maintain and increase our standards of living. The demand for it is also increasing due to the world's rising population. At the same time the available sources of energy are proving inadequate to satisfy the demand: oil production will soon peak and then start to fall; coal and the other fossil fuels are serious polluters; hydroelectric power is limited by geography, and wind, solar, and the other renewable sources are unable to deliver energy in the huge quantities required. This combination of rising demand and falling supply is the basis of the energy crisis. If that were all that could be said, there would be no possibility of resolving the crisis. There is, however, another source--the nucleus of the atom.

In 1939 it was found that when the nuclei of certain heavy elements such as uranium are irradiated by neutrons they became unstable and split into two pieces, a process known as fission. The fission fragments fly apart with great energy and also emit more neutrons. These neutrons can enter nearby uranium nuclei and cause them to fission, resulting in a chain reaction and a large release of energy. This energy release can be controlled and used to drive a turbine to generate electricity. (1)

Many nuclear reactors have now been built, and are making a growing contribution to world energy supplies. They have, however, encountered bitter opposition for a variety of reasons that will be discussed below. The question we have to face is whether nuclear power can provide the solution to the energy crisis, or whether nuclear reactors pose such a threat that they should be phased out as soon as possible. This question can be tackled by applying the same criteria as those already used to evaluate the other energy sources, namely capacity, reliability, cost, safety and effects on the environment.

The Capacity of Nuclear Power

Nuclear power reactors each have an output similar to coal power stations, namely around 1000 MW. There are now about 440 nuclear reactors worldwide delivering about 2,500 TWh per year, around a fifth of world electricity consumption. The numbers of nuclear power stations built in each country depends on its natural resources, principally coal and oil. France, which lacks these resources and is unwilling to become dependent on imports, generates about eighty percent of its electricity from nuclear reactors. It is unlikely to rise higher than this because nuclear reactors take time to get started and therefore cannot react quickly when there is a sudden demand. They are best suited to supply the base load, supplemented by other methods of generation (such as gas power stations) to handle the fluctuations in demand.

Many other countries generate around fifty percent of their electricity from nuclear power, and now nuclear has outstripped coal in Western Europe. There is thus no doubt that nuclear power stations are able to provide a large contribution to the world's energy needs.

It has been objected that this program, while possible in principle, is unable to solve the energy crisis because of the limited supplies of uranium. At present the rate of uranium use is seventy thousand tonnes per year, whereas the known economically recoverable sources of uranium amount to over three million tonnes, sufficient for about forty-five years. In addition, there are about twelve million tonnes of highly probable deposits. If eventually there is a uranium shortage the price will rise, increasing the number of economically-recoverable deposits. Since the cost of fuel is a small part of the overall costs of reactors, this will have very little effect on the price of the electricity generated.

The present reactors are thermal reactors that burn uranium-235, which constitutes only 0-7 percent of natural uranium. The remaining 99.3 percent consists of uranium-238 that can be burnt in fast reactors. …

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