Producing Nuclear Power: Is Increasing the Number of Nuclear Power Plants an Advisable Way to Meet Increasing Demands for Energy?

By Childress, Vincent W. | The Technology Teacher, December 2009 | Go to article overview

Producing Nuclear Power: Is Increasing the Number of Nuclear Power Plants an Advisable Way to Meet Increasing Demands for Energy?


Childress, Vincent W., The Technology Teacher


Introduction

There is a potential crisis looming related to the world's need for energy. On the one hand, energy demands are growing every day, and could double by 2050 (Office of Nuclear Energy, 2008). On the other hand, burning of traditional fossil fuels to generate electricity is contributing to the increase in greenhouse gases.

Would it be advisable to increase the number of nuclear power plants as an energy source for meeting this increasing demand for electricity?

Nuclear Energy and the Generation of Electricity

Electricity generated from nuclear energy does not produce greenhouse gases, but it has one ma)or problem associated with it. Used fuel remains radioactive for centuries after it has been used in power plants. The depleted fuel is a potential hazard to humans and the environment and is susceptible to terrorist interdiction. Conventional hydroelectric is another form of electrical generation that does not produce greenhouse gases. As of the Department of Energy's Energy Information Administration's 2008(a) accounting, traditional hydroelectric generation accounts for just over 7 percent of the United States' generating capacity. Nuclear energy accounts for 9.6 percent of the United States' electrical generating capacity but supplies about 20 percent of the electricity in the United States (Nuclear Regulatory Commission, 2008a). Besides the long-term storage or redevelopment of spent nuclear fuel, another practical disadvantage of nuclear energy is that nuclear power plants must maintain high levels of safety regarding the ability to control the necessary nuclear reaction.

Why Fuels Are Needed to Generate Electricity

(The following section is reprinted from Childress, 2008.)

Electromagnetic induction is a phenomenon by which electrical current can be made to flow in an electrical conductor. Copper wire is an example of an electrical conductor, and at the atomic level, copper has an extra electron in its outer shell. When that electron is caused to move from one copper atom to another, you have electrical current or the flow of electricity. Electrons in neighboring atoms are behaving the same way, so you end up with current flowing in all parts of the conductor. What can cause the electron to move from one atom to another? Magnetism. In order to induce current flow in a conductor, there must be relative motion between the conductor and the magnetic field. No matter what the source of energy used to generate useable electrical current from electromagnetic induction, the process is basically the same: move an electrical conductor in a magnetic field, or move a magnetic field across an electrical conductor. What creates this motion? Steam or water is used to move the parts of a generator so that the motion required for electromagnetic induction is sustained. To produce the steam, fuel must be used. What fuel is burned? Coal, natural gas, and petroleum; and for nuclear, radiation is used to heat the water into steam. Therefore, thermal energy is converted into mechanical energy, which is converted into electrical energy.

[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]

Mining and Refining Uranium

To eventually generate electricity with nuclear energy, a mining company must first locate, refine, enrich, and manufacture fuel-grade uranium pellets. While the Office of Nuclear Energy (2008) suggests that there should be discussions on making nuclear energy a primary source of energy for electrical generation, the Office of Energy Statistics reports that uranium mining operations are limited. There are currently only four mining-by-leaching operations and one mining-ore-and-milling operation active in the United States. Those are currently the only plants in the United States that could supply uranium to the nation's 103 nuclear generators. Production of enriched uranium is down from 2007, but it is up overall from the earlier part of this decade (Office of Energy Statistics, 2008b). …

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