The nuclear alternative
Nuclear power provides nearly 6 per cent of the world’s primary energy at present. Given that its use does not generate carbon dioxide, this chapter asks whether nuclear power can be relied on to play an increasing role in combating global warming, or whether, as many environmentalists would prefer, it should be phased out. We also take a look at nuclear fusion, which some people see as a possible energy option for the longer term.
The basis of the human use of nuclear energy is the fact that the nuclei of the atoms of some naturally radioactive materials found in the earth, most notably one of the isotopes of uranium, can be induced to split up or undergo nuclear fission. In doing so large amounts of heat are produced, along with nuclear radiation and a range of radioactive fragments from the fission process. The heat can be used to boil water to raise steam, as in a conventional fossil fuel fired power plant. If the fission or splitting up process can be made to happen very rapidly then an explosion occurs—the atomic bomb. In conventional nuclear reactors the physics of the design is such that this cannot happen, but in theory this is an outside chance in some of the more advanced reactors like the fast breeder.
There is a range of technologies for turning nuclear heat into electricity. In the USA the emphasis has been on water cooled reactors—in part