One Kg of Uranium has the Potential to Produce 3 Million Times the Energy Produced by One Kg of Oil or Coal

The great earth quake disaster in the Fukushima prefecture in Japan remains the most expensive disaster in history. Tens of thousands of people died due to the earth quake damage and subsequent tsunami. The country is still reeling from that damage.

One of the economic sectors impacted by this natural disaster was nuclear power. In my opinion, it received the most disproportionate attention and still continues to do so and this is despite one simple fact: the number of people that died due to the damage of the nuclear power plant? Zero.

Another opinion: the nuclear industry has ceded messaging and reputation management to volunteer organizations and sat idle as it experienced a 40 year public relations disaster unfold. There are many reasons for this with the main one is leadership, but this is for another discussion.

For instance, many people do not know that nuclear power has resulted in the least number of deaths compared to other sources of energy — even solar! [7] When looking at number of accidents that resulted in five or more deaths from 1969 to 2000, nuclear has ZERO [1]. Here is another fact: the existence of nuclear power has saved over 1.8 million lives by avoiding air-pollution related deaths and prevented the emission of 64 gigatonnes of greenhouse gas emissions [4].

While, the benefits of nuclear power that most people are not aware of are numerous, most people also do not know the basics about the technology. This writing presents some of that basic information.

The first commercially operated nuclear power plant was built in Shippingport, Pennsylvania in 1957. The industry experienced rapid growth in the 60s and 70s and slowed down in the 80s due to drop in energy demand and amid the infamous Three Mile Island and Chernobyl accidents.

There are two kinds of nuclear reactors used in most of the world and in the U.S. These are pressurized water reactors (PWRs) and boiling water reactors (BWRs). The difference between the two is basically how they produce the electricity. Think of it as the difference between an android and an apple platform. While the way each platform executes function is different, everyone uses them for the same basic things: make calls, email, and internet. Similarly, a PWR and BWR may produce power differently but we use them to produce electricity.

There are 437 power plants operating worldwide and 99 in America. There are 66 more under construction of which 5 are in the U.S. Each nuclear power plant can take $6 to $9 billion to build [6]. The main drivers of cost and schedule are safety and the sheer size of the project. Just one of the five plants being built in the U.S. represents the single largest infrastructure construction.

So how do they work? The main difference between a nuclear power plant and say a coal or natural gas plant is the fuel. Otherwise the balance of plant — everything but the fuel source such as generators, turbines, and transformers are the same. The fuel is called uranium. If we think back to our high school chemistry class, all atoms have isotopes that are identical in every way except they have different numbers of neutrons. The two most prevalent isotopes of uranium are U-235 and U-238. The energy is produced when a U-235 isotope swallows one neutron, becomes unstable, and bursts or fissions. Think of it as when a balloon is filled with water until it stretches beyond its limit and bursts. Similarly, the U-235, which originally has 92 neutrons swallows one more neutron and then breaks apart to produce an immense amount of energy. Just to give an idea of the immensity: one kg of uranium has the potential to produce 3 million times the energy produced by one kg of oil or coal.

In the U.S., nuclear power accounts for 20% of all electricity produced. It produces 2/3rd of the country’s emissions-free electricity. In my home state, Maryland’s own Calvert Cliffs nuclear power plant produces over 35% of the state’s electricity and over 80% of the state’s emissions-free electricity [5]. The electricity produced by nuclear energy is considered baseload power or bulk electricity. Think of it as the major veins and arteries in the human body that transport the bulk of nutrients and blood to the different parts of the human body.

I mentioned earlier that safety is a big factor in the design, construction and operation of nuclear power. The industry is regulated by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). The NRC is led by five commissioners that are appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate. The commission develops rules that the industry abides. It is safe to say that the nuclear industry is the most regulated industry.

People are weary of nuclear power because of radiation. What many do not realize is that radiation is all around us. It is in the bananas we eat, the X-Rays and CT Scans we take, the concrete we use to build our homes, and the flights we take. Consider these two facts: one flight from New York to California results in half the dose of one chest X-ray [2]. And one coast-to-coast flight produces an equal amount of dose as living next to a normally operating power plant for one year [3].

It is important to demystify the technology and provide awareness of the numerous benefits to society. The more people are aware, the more the support, the less the economic risk, the less the construction cost. On the flipside, we as a society are flirting with this romantic idea of solar panels lighting everything we do and I fear that it will be too late by the time we realize that this is not possible. Nuclear power is safe. It is abundant. It is awesome. Let’s build more and safe the planet.

References:

  1. Comparing Nuclear Accident Risks with Those from Other … (n.d.). Retrieved May 25, 2016, from http://www.oecd-nea.org/ndd/reports/2010/nea6862-comparing-risks.pdf
  2. How Much Radiation Are You Exposed To During a Cross-Country Flight? (n.d.). Retrieved May 25, 2016, from http://www.livescience.com/32865-how-much-radiation-are-you-exposed-to-during-a-cross-country-flight.html
  3. Measuring Radiation. (n.d.). Retrieved May 25, 2016, from http://www.nrc.gov/about-nrc/radiation/health-effects/measuring-radiation.html
  4. National Aeronautics and Space Administration. (n.d.). Retrieved May 25, 2016, from http://pubs.giss.nasa.gov/abs/kh05000e.html
  5. Nuclear Energy in Maryland Fact Sheet, Retrieved May 25, 2016, from nei.org.
  6. Schlissel, D., & Biewald, B. (n.d.). Nuclear Power Plant Construction Costs — July 2008. Retrieved May 25, 2016, from http://schlissel-technical.com/docs/reports_36.pdf
  7. Wang, B. L. (n.d.). Next Big Future: Deaths per TWH by energy source. Retrieved May 25, 2016, from http://nextbigfuture.com/2011/03/deaths-per-twh-by-energy-source.html