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Nuclear energy pros and cons

Last updated 11/10/2021

As with any energy source, renewable or non-renewable, there are pros and cons to using nuclear energy. We’ll review some of these top benefits and drawbacks to keep in mind when comparing nuclear to other energy sources.

Top pros and cons of nuclear energy

Despite limited development of nuclear power plants recently, nuclear energy still supplies about 20 percent of U.S. electricity. As with any energy source, it comes with various advantages and disadvantages. Here are just a few top ones to keep in mind:

Pros and cons of nuclear power

Pros of nuclear energy Cons of nuclear energy
Carbon-free electricity Uranium is technically non-renewable
Small land footprint Very high upfront costs
High power output Nuclear waste
Reliable energy source Malfunctions can be catastrophic

On the pros side, nuclear energy is a carbon-free electricity source (with other environmental benefits as well!), it needs a relatively small land area to operate, and is a great energy source for reliable baseload power for the electric grid. On the cons side, nuclear is technically a non-renewable source of energy, nuclear plants have a high up-front cost associated with them, and nuclear waste and operation of nuclear plants in general poses some environmental and health challenges.

Below, we’ll explore these pros and cons in further detail.

Advantages of nuclear energy

Here are four advantages of nuclear energy:

  • Carbon-free electricity
  • Small land footprint
  • High power output
  • Reliable energy source

Carbon-free electricity

While traditional fossil fuel generation sources pump massive amounts of carbon dioxide (the primary cause of global climate change) into the atmosphere, nuclear energy plants do not produce carbon dioxide, or any air pollution, during operation. That’s not to say that they don’t pollute at all, though - the process of mining, refining, and preparing uranium uses energy, and nuclear waste poses a completely separate environmental problem. We’ll discuss nuclear waste’s role in all this later on.

Small land footprint

Compared to other common clean energy facilities (particularly wind and solar power), nuclear energy plants take up far less physical space. According to the Department of Energy, a typical nuclear facility producing 1,000 megawatts (MW) of electricity takes up about one square mile of space. Comparatively, a wind farm producing the same amount of energy takes 360x more land area, and a large-scale solar farm uses 75x more space. That’s 431 wind turbines or 3.125 million (!!!) solar panels. Check out this graphic from the Department of Energy for more fun comparisons of energy sources, like how many Corvettes are needed to produce the same amount of energy as one nuclear reactor.

High power output

Nuclear power plants produce high levels of energy compared to most power sources (especially renewables), which makes them a great provider of baseload electricity. . “Baseload electricity” simply means the minimum level of energy demand on the grid over a span of time, say a week. Nuclear has the potential to be this high-output basload source, and we’re headed that way - since 1990, nuclear power plants have generated 20% of the US’s electricity. Additionally, nuclear is a prime candidate for replacing current baseload electricity sources that contribute significantly to air pollution, such as large coal plants.

Reliable energy source

Lastly, nuclear energy is a reliable renewable energy source based on it’s constant production and accessibility. Nuclear power plants produce at their maximum power output more often (93% of the time) than any other energy source, and because of this round-the-clock stability, this makes nuclear energy an ideal source for reliable baseload electricity for the grid.

Disadvantages of nuclear energy

Here are four disadvantages of nuclear energy:

  • Uranium is technically non-renewable
  • Very high upfront costs
  • Nuclear waste
  • Malfunctions can be catastrophic

Uranium is non-renewable

Although nuclear energy is a “clean” source of power, it is technically not renewable. Current nuclear technology relies on uranium ore for fuel, which exists in limited amounts in the earth’s crust. The longer we rely on nuclear power (and uranium ore in particular) the more depleted the earth’s uranium resources will become, which will drive up the cost of extracting it, as well as the negative environmental impacts from mining and processing the uranium.

High upfront costs

Operating a nuclear energy plant is a relatively low-cost endeavor, but building it in the first place is very expensive. Nuclear reactors are complex devices that require many levels of safety built around them, which drives up the cost of new nuclear plants. 

Nuclear waste

And now to the thorny issue of nuclear waste – we could write hundreds of articles about the science of nuclear waste, its political implications, cost/benefit analyses, and more when it comes to this particular subject. The key takeaway from all of that would be this: nuclear waste is a complicated issue, and we won't claim to be anything near experts. Nuclear waste is radioactive, making it an environmental and health catastrophe waiting to happen. These reasons are exactly why governments spend tons of money to safely package up and dispose of used-up nuclear fuel. At the end of the day, yes, nuclear waste is a dangerous by-product of nuclear power plants, and it takes extreme care and advanced technology to handle it properly.

Malfunctions can be catastrophic

A nuclear meltdown occurs when the heat created by a nuclear reactor exceeds the amount of heat being transferred out by the cooling systems; this causes the system to exceed its melting point. If this happens, hot radioactive vapors can escape, which can cause nuclear plants to fully melt down and combust, while also releasing harmful radioactive materials into the environment. This is a worst-case-scenario that is extremely unlikely, and nuclear plants are equipped with numerous safety measures to prevent meltdowns from happening.

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