Nuclear Energy



Nuclear power has a checkered history that includes the Chernobyl disaster, Three Mile Island, and the more recent incident after the earthquake in Japan.  Advocates, however, point to advantages such as zero carbon emissions and cite the example of France, which produces over 75% of its electricity from nuclear power and is the world’s largest exporter of electricity due to its very low cost of generation.  Join Active Minds as we evaluate the pros and cons of this controversial source of power.

Key Lecture Points

  • The ability to control nuclear fission reactions is one of the great technological achievements of the 20th century.  After WWII under the Atoms for Peace Program, nuclear technology was privatized, giving rise to the nuclear power industry.  In a nuclear power plant, when a uranium atom is separated into two lighter atoms, massive energy is created.   This nuclear energy (lower in level than that used in a weapon) is then used to heat water to drive a turbine generator which in turns creates electricity.
  • Because it does not release carbon dioxide, nuclear power has great potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and slow the rate of climate change.  But nuclear energy does present its own problems.  The biggest drawbacks to nuclear power is risk, particularly after accidents like those at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl (30 years ago, as of 2016) and Fukushima Daiichi (five years ago).  As a result of these accidents, the cost of building a nuclear plant has steadily increased due to the need for redundant and complex safety features, as well as enhanced security after 9/11.
  • Worldwide, there are about 440 commercial nuclear power reactors operating in 31 countries.  These plants provide over 11% of the world’s electricity.  France gets more than three-quarters of its electricity from nuclear energy.  The US gets almost one-fifth of its electricity from nuclear energy.
  • Nuclear energy presents the problem of disposing of nuclear waste which remains radioactive for lengthy periods of time. Debate continues in the US over the proposal to build an underground repository for the US’s nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain, Nevada.  The project’s future is uncertain because of opposition from Nevadans (and their representatives in Congress), the Obama Administration, and environmentalists.  

Exploration Questions

  • What are the pros and cons of nuclear power?
  • What are the major challenges facing the nuclear power industry?

Reflective Questions

  • Do you think the US should rely more or less on nuclear power?  Why?  Why not?
  • Would you be comfortable living near a nuclear power plant?  Why?  Why not?

More to Explore

Books for Further Reading

  • Fox, Michael H.  Why We Need Nuclear Power: The Environmental Case. Oxford University Press, USA, 2014. 306 pages.  The author, a radiation biologist, evaluates the different renewable energy sources and makes the case for necessity of nuclear power to slow global warming while acknowledging nuclear power’s disadvantages as well as advantages.
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  • Pohl, Frederik.  Chernobyl.  TOR Books, 2014.  363 pages.  This novel brings alive the story of the workers and technicians who were at the Chernobyl power plant when disaster struck, setting off the world’s worst nuclear accident.  Using fictional characters, the author closely follows events as documented in the Soviet press, Moscow’s unusually candid 1986 report to the International Atomic Energy Agency and eyewitness accounts.
    Click here to order