Nuclear power – Help at hand? Possibly. Nuclear power doesn't add much to global warming – but it does create other types of wastes which are nasty because they are radioactive.
Radioactivity gets made inside nuclear power plants as the fuel – uranium metal – splits into other elements which give off radiation. So far, no one has worked out a way to safely dispose of the waste this makes, so at present it's all stored – huge quantities of it. And if the power plant goes wrong (Chernobyl) or is damaged by eathquake and tsunami, terrible disasters can happen.
Facts about Radiation
Radiation is scary because no one can tell itís there without special detectors. Animals like you and me have senses which means we can see, hear, touch, taste, smell – but we canít tell if something is radioactive. Waste products from making nuclear bombs and from nuclear power plants are very radioactive indeed. If you happened to fall into a nuclear reactor, you would die almost instantly. Lower radiation levels can also make people die – over a matter of days or, by causing illnesses like cancer, over a period of years. Radiation comes from new elements (uranium fuel is an element; so is carbon and so is oxygen) which get made during nuclear reactions. The radioactive isotopes of these elements, often only exist for a few weeks or years. But some last for hundreds of thousands of years which is why no one really knows what to do about getting rid of them. Radioactive isotopes have what's called a half-life. Radioactive isotopes with short half-lives quickly disappear by spewing out streams of tiny particles which travel very fast. This is radiation and itís dangerous to life like you and me. So if you stand near something radioactive, youíre being hit by trillions of tiny Ďbulletsí all the time. You canít feel it but these Ďbulletsí damage the cells in your body. A lot of damage breaks them and you die. Less damage messes up their genes and causes cancer and kills you slowly. Like I said, nasty stuff.
If nuclear power is so dangerous, how might it help?
Nuclear power stations have been making electric power for over 50 years. People understand their dangers very well so the risk of using them is less than it used to be. A scientist or nuclear engineer would say 'the technology has matured'. Nuclear stations have several advantages over other ways to make electricity:
It's certain that many more nuclear plants will get built because people are used to having electric power at the flip of a switch all the time. 'Green' (environmentalist) people have always been against nuclear power and most still are. They want a world powered by renewables like wind and solar energy. The trouble with that is that renewables aren't always producing power and people today are totally used to having energy available whenever they want it. Relying on renewables would mean you couldn't be sure the lights would go on when you flipped that switch! So some Greens now accept that nuclear power should be part of the mix of power sources – including renewables – which could produce a steady, reliable 'background' of power at all times. There are some who think that if people are going to go for nuclear power in a big way, it could all be made much safer if the reactors could be built underground. Find out why. And now there are special reactors which can not only generate huge amounts of power but use up the dangerous radioactive stuff which is produced in older reactor types, so they need hardly any fuel. But mostly, these are still on the drawing board – only one or two have ever been built.
Getting rid of waste
So why not go nuclear? Why not build loads of new reactors and make green electricity? There are still problems with nuclear which can't be easily fixed. The biggest of these is the radioactive waste they make while they're operating. There are ways to deal with this, some short term and some longer term though there is no simple solution to the big issue: nuclear waste is nasty stuff. But there are good reasons to hope that the waste problem can be solved using IFRs.
There are better and safer methods of using nuclear energy. Some are just around the corner and some further away. One of the brightest stars is nuclear fusion. This is making energy in the same way that the sun makes it. Instead of splitting atoms to make heat, hydrogen atoms fuse into helium atoms at unbelievably high temperatures such as you find in the middle of the sun: that's around 50 million degrees. This fusion of atoms gives off really massive amounts of heat and light which is why our sun is hot and bright. Scientists believe that they can mimic the sun in fusion reactors here on Earth but using the technology as an energy source is still many years in the future.
Let's now look at the energy alternatives, called renewables, so you can decide for yourself which energy source is best.