Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)
At the intersection of energy, the environment, and the battle against climate change, nuclear energy plays a pivotal role. This FAQ section is dedicated to answering your most pressing questions about nuclear power’s contributions to a sustainable and low-carbon future.
Why is nuclear energy important?
The burning of fossil fuels for electricity, heat, and transportation is the major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. As greenhouse gasses continue to warm the planet, we need as many low-emission energy sources as possible.
Low carbon: Nuclear energy is low carbon. For over 50 years, it has avoided emitting 70 gigatons of CO2 emissions, or the equivalent of 700,000 fully-loaded U.S. aircraft carriers.
Energy density: Nuclear fuel (Uranium-235) is very energy dense, meaning less is needed to generate electricity. One pellet of uranium fuel (about the size of a gummy bear) produces the same amount of electricity as 1 ton of coal. Additionally, because of this energy density, nuclear power requires less land for power plants and less mining of raw materials to make large amounts of electricity.
Reliability: Nuclear energy is often used as a baseload source of power, meaning that it runs continuously regardless of weather. Most nuclear power plants run for around 18 months before some of the fuel needs to be replaced. This makes it a great compliment to variable sources of clean electricity, like wind and solar. Nuclear energy can also load follow, meaning it can adjust output based on demand. France is a great example of this.
How much electricity can a nuclear power plant produce?
Most nuclear power reactors produce around 1 GW of electricity each, the amount of energy needed to power 100 million LED lightbulbs or 876,000 households (if each uses about 10,000 kWh).
However, some future designs, like small modular reactors and micro reactors, are designed to produce less electricity, e.g., up to 300 MW and 10 MW, respectively. This flexibility means they may be faster to build, less expensive, and easier to scale up as energy demands increase.
How does a nuclear power plant make electricity?
A nuclear power plant makes electricity through a process called nuclear fission. Inside the plant there are fuel rods made of uranium. We shoot tiny particles called neutrons at these fuel rods in order to make the uranium atoms split apart. This splitting (“fission”) releases a lot of heat and more neutrons. The heat is used to turn water into steam, just like a kettle. The steam then rushes to a turbine. As the steam pushes the turbine it makes it spin and this spinning generates electricity. The electricity generated is then sent to our homes, businesses, and factories through power lines.
Is nuclear energy safe?
It’s understandable that many people question the safety of nuclear power when they are only familiar with Chernobyl and Fukushima.
However, nuclear energy is one of the safest forms of electricity generation. Per terawatt-hour of electricity produced, nuclear energy is just as safe as solar and wind. When compared to fossil fuels, it’s much safer. For example, per terawatt-hour of electricity generated, nuclear energy results in 0.03 deaths due to accidents or air pollution whereas brown coal is 32.72 deaths and gas is 2.82.
Are nuclear power plants expensive to build?
Yes, nuclear power plants are expensive to build due to significant infrastructure, technology, and safety investments. However, when looking at cost, it’s important to consider the lifetime costs of electricity production using levelized cost of energy or LCOE. To do this, you divide the initial cost of construction and implementation by the lifetime electricity generation. When you take into consideration that most nuclear power plants will produce electricity for 30 to 60 years and have a high capacity factor (i.e., run at full power the majority of the time), the actual lifetime costs of nuclear energy is low.
Why don’t we just use renewables?
Renewables, like hydro, solar, and wind, are important to reducing carbon emissions and achieving climate goals. But many of them produce power intermittently, meaning they don’t produce power 24/7. Nuclear power plants are a source of baseload power, i.e., they produce electricity continuously, regardless of weather.
Additionally, current estimates show that we can’t achieve climate goals, like reaching net zero by 2050, without nuclear energy.
What else can nuclear energy be used for?
Nuclear energy also has useful applications in water desalination, medical imaging, cancer treatment, scientific research, and space exploration.
Nuclear technologies are so common, you’re probably familiar with several of them. A few examples:
- Smoke detectors: Most household smoke detectors have a small amount of americium-241.
- Medical imaging: Diagnostic radioisotopes, typically technetium-99m, when paired with imaging devices like CT or MRI scans, provide comprehensive views of a body or bodily system to aid in diagnosis.
- Space exploration: For deep space missions, radioisotope thermal generators (RTGs) are used to power spacecraft, like the Mars Curiosity rover.
- Food preservation: To help make food last longer, prevent foodborne illnesses, and sterilize food for immunocompromised patients, food will be exposed to gamma rays without noticeably affecting taste, texture or appearance of the food.
- Equipment sterilization: Every year, around 12 million m3 of medical devices are sterilized using radiation at more than 160 gamma irradiation plants around the world. This includes medical equipment like syringes, surgical gloves, gowns, and surgical dressings.