Published on June 27th, 2014 | by Peter Young1
5 Common Myths Surrounding Nuclear Power
I must start off by saying that as you read this, bear in mind that I am a huge environmental supporter and things like nuclear waste do not bode well with me. However, there are common misconceptions about nuclear power I want to address.
Okay, so you may not be a nuclear engineer, but you’ve probably heard of nuclear power before. Nuclear power plants have been operational since the early 1950’s and since then we have seen catastrophes such as Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima. The public has grown in their understanding of nuclear power over the years and, consequently, has grown very distrustful of both the technology and the politics behind it. Below are a few talking points that most would consider true statements:
1) Nuclear power is not clean technology.
2) Nuclear power is not safe technology.
3) Nuclear power is not sustainable.
4) Nuclear power promotes proliferation of nuclear weapons.
5) Nuclear power is just an expensive way to boil water to generate electricity.
These are the facts about nuclear power, right? Most people would certainly say so. But it turns out most people are wrong. Now, before you start writing your hate mail, please allow me to explain.
There is much more to the story than you may realize. I say this because the word ‘nuclear’ now carries a negative stigmatism that it truly doesn’t deserve. Perhaps this is just an issue of semantics, but I believe we can gain insight by dissecting the words that are commonly used. The key here is the word ‘nuclear’. This refers to the energy stored within the nucleus of the atom. There are two ways to extract the energy out of the nucleus. The first is through fission and the second is through fusion.
Fission is the current method used by nuclear power plants. This approach is scientifically very different from fusion, an approach that is being researched to replace fission. In the talking points above, if you were to replace the word ‘nuclear power’ with ‘fission power’ the statements would all be true. However, if you replace ‘nuclear power’ with ‘fusion power’ all the statements actually become false. To put it simply, fission is bad and fusion is good. The word nuclear is a broad term that encompasses both fission and fusion technology. The result being that fusion is getting a bad rapport before it’s even shown up to the party. I think it’s important that we begin to disassociate fusion technology from fission technology within the nuclear arena.
Perhaps fusion energy currently is not being discussed in this way because many people think it is so far away. It feels very abstract, not real. Every time you have this thought, I want you to look up in the sky and marvel at the stars as a reminder that fusion is very real. Also note, fusion research has been advancing about as fast as Moore’s Law and there’s a long list of different approaches being explored, most of which are not covered by mass media. My point being that a huge break-through may be just around the corner. Some researchers are claiming we could have fusion power as early as 2020. Not only is it time to start the discussion, but it’s long overdue.
What’s the difference between fission and fusion? Nuclear fission is the splitting of atoms, while nuclear fusion is the joining of atoms. Now, fusion technology may not be competitive with other energy sources yet, but it certainly will be eventually. And it is this reason that I believe we need to better understand this nuclear technology. It is so easy for people to call all nuclear technology bad and it seriously undermines the admirable efforts of scientists working towards fusion energy technology.
Fusion has long been heralded as the holy grail of energy and rightfully so. It holds so much potential. The biggest hurdle facing scientists attempting this goal is obtaining net energy, or more power out than in. We’ve done this with fission already, but it has proven to be a less than desirable method because of it’s serious drawbacks. All of those drawbacks are the consequences of radioactive waste that can remain hazardous for hundreds or thousands of years. Presently, radioactive waste is a serious issue that is practically synonymous with nuclear power. But, one day that will change. In fact, it must change.
Nuclear fusion has greater energy potential than even fission. But that’s far from it’s best selling point. Many different fuel sources can be used for fusion and they all result in less radioactive waste. But less radioactive waste is not good enough. The biggest misconception about nuclear power is the issue of radioactive waste. If there is one takeaway from this post to remember, it is that there are fusion fuel sources that will not lead to radioactive waste. This subset of fusion is called aneutronic fusion because it releases less than 1% of it’s energy in the form of neutrons. The importance of this is that radioactive waste is generated by neutrons. Therefore, this subset of nuclear fusion results in substantially less radioactivity. So much less, that it produces no radioactive waste. Of course, the lack of radioactive waste eliminates all the problems associated with recycling it. I believe it is important to help people understand that research into aneutronic fusion is an investment in the future of mankind. That’s how disruptive this technology will be once it is realized. It is the ultimate green energy and not enough people are even aware that it’s possible. Aneutronic fusion shatters the common myths surrounding nuclear power.
This post was generously sponsored by Kyle Haines. Photo courtesy of PSU.