Nuclear applications are wide and diverse, ranging from power generation, medical use, agriculture, Industry use, space exploration, food irradiation, desalination, and many others.
Nuclear power is generated from the energy released by splitting atoms of certain elements. Nuclear technology was discovered in the 1940s, and later in the 1950s, attention turned to using nuclear fission core rods for power generation. Currently, about 10% of the world’s electricity is generated by 440 nuclear reactors; 56 more reactors are under construction in 15 countries, equivalent to 15% of the existing capacity.
In 2021 nuclear plants supplied 2,653 TWh of electricity, up from 2,553 TWh in 2020.
World electricity production by source 2019 (source: International Energy Agency)
Nuclear power outweighs other sources on the merits stated below;
Nuclear is Low-Carbon
Nuclear power plants produce no greenhouse gas emissions during operation, and throughout their life cycle, nuclear produce about the same amount of carbon dioxide-equivalent emissions per unit of electricity as wind and one-third of the emissions per unit of electricity when compared with solar.
Average life-cycle carbon dioxide-equivalent emissions for different electricity generators (Source: IPCC)
Experts have concluded that to achieve the deep decarbonisation required to keep the average rise in global temperatures below 1.5°C, combating climate change would be much harder without an increased role for nuclear power. Because nuclear power is reliable and can be deployed on a large scale, it can directly replace fossil fuel plants, avoiding the combustion of fossil fuels for electricity generation. Nuclear energy today avoids emissions roughly equivalent to removing one-third of all cars from the world’s roads.
Highest Capacity Factor
Nuclear energy has the highest capacity factor compared to other energy sources. A plant with a capacity factor of 100% means it’s consistently producing power. Nuclear has the highest capacity factor of any other energy source—producing reliable, carbon-free power more than 92% of the time in 2021.
U.S. Capacity factor by energy source -2021(source U.S Energy Information Administration)
Nuclear power plants require less maintenance and are designed to operate for longer stretches before refuelling, usually every 18 to 24 months.
Natural gas and coal capacity factors are generally lower due to routine maintenance and refuelling at these facilities.
Renewable plants are considered intermittent or variable sources as they are limited by weather conditions (i.e. wind, sun, or water). As a result, these plants need a backup power source such as large-scale storage or can be absorbed with a reliable baseload power like nuclear energy.
Thirteen countries in 2020 produced at least one-quarter of their electricity from nuclear power. France gets around 70% of its electricity from nuclear energy, while Ukraine, Slovakia, Belgium, Hungary, and the province of Ontario in Canada, get about half from nuclear power. Japan used to rely on nuclear power for more than one-quarter of its electricity and is expected to return to somewhere near that level.
Nuclear generation by country 2022 (source: IAEA PRIS)
Medical applications of nuclear technology have grown vastly over the last two decades. The use of radiation and radioisotopes in medicine, particularly for diagnosis, evaluation and therapy of various medical conditions is a common practice currently. In developed countries about one person in 50 uses diagnostic nuclear medicine each year, and the frequency of therapy with radioisotopes is about one-tenth of this.
Nuclear medicine tests use a small amount of radioactive material combined with a carrier molecule. This compound is called a radiotracer. These tests help diagnose and assess medical conditions. They are non-invasive and usually painless.
When a radiotracer is injected into the body, it builds up in certain areas of the body. Radiotracers go to the area of the body that needs to be examined, such as a cancerous tumor or inflamed area. They can also bind to certain proteins in the body.
The most common radiotracer is F-18 fluorodeoxyglucose (FDG). It is just one of many radiotracers in use or in development. FDG is a compound similar to glucose, or sugar. Highly active cancer cells need more energy than normal cells. As a result, they absorb more glucose. An imaging device that detects energy given off by FDG creates pictures that show the location of the radiotracer in the body. Other radioisotopes used in the medical industry are Technetium-99m, Iodine-131, and Molybdenum-99.
Radiotracers are usually given via injection, but they may also be swallowed or inhaled.
Nuclear medicine therapy uses a small amount of radioactive material combined with a carrier molecule. This is called a radiopharmaceutical. Radiopharmaceuticals attach to specific cells and then deliver a high dose of radiation, destroying them.
Nuclear medicine therapies treat cancer and other conditions including Non-Hodgkin’s B-cell lymphoma, neuroendocrine tumors, advanced neuroendocrine tumors affecting the digestive tract and painful tumor metastases in the bones.
Common radiopharmaceuticals used, include Radioactive iodine (I-131) therapy to treat thyroid cancer and hyperthyroidism, I-131 MIBG (radioactive iodine labeled with metaiodobenzylguanidine) to treat neuroendocrine tumors, including paragangliomas and pheochromocytomas, and neuroblastoma in infants, Radium-223 dichloride, samarium-153 lexidronam and strontium-89 chloride to treat painful tumor metastases to the bones and Lu-177 dotatate to treat adult patients with advanced neuroendocrine tumors that affect the digestive tract, known as GEP-NETs. This is also called Peptide Receptor Radionuclide Therapy (PRRT).
Hospitals use gamma radiation to sterilize medical products and supplies such as syringes, gloves, clothing, and instruments that would otherwise be damaged by heat sterilisation.Many medical products today are sterilized by gamma rays from a cobalt-60 source, a technique which generally is much cheaper and more effective than steam heat sterilization. The disposable syringe is an example of a product sterilized by gamma rays. Because it is a ‘cold’ process, radiation can be used to sterilize a range of heat-sensitive items such as powders, ointments, and solutions, as well as biological preparations such as bone, nerve, skin, etc, used in tissue grafts.
The benefit to humanity of sterilization by radiation is tremendous. It is safer and cheaper because it can be done after the item is packaged. The sterile shelf life of the item is then practically indefinite provided the package is not broken open. Apart from syringes, medical products sterilized by radiation include cotton wool, burn dressings, surgical gloves, heart valves, bandages, plastic and rubber sheets, and surgical instruments.
Nuclear applications in agriculture rely on the use of isotopes and radiation techniques to combat pests and diseases, increase crop production, protect land and water resources, ensure food safety and authenticity, and increase livestock production.
- In animal productivity and health, nuclear and related technologies have made a difference in improving livestock productivity, controlling and preventing transboundary animal diseases and protecting the environment.
- Nuclear techniques are now used in many countries to help maintain healthy soil and water systems, which are paramount in ensuring food security for the growing global population.
- In pest management, The nuclear-derived sterile insect technique (SIT) involves mass-rearing and sterilizing male insects before releasing them over pest-infested areas. The technique suppresses and gradually eliminates already established pests or prevents the introduction of invasive species – and is safer for the environment and human health than conventional pesticides.
- In food safety, Nuclear techniques help national authorities in over 50 countries to improve food safety by addressing the problem of harmful residues and contaminants in food products and to improve their traceability systems with stable isotope analysis.
- In addressing seasonal famine, crop-breeding programmes use nuclear technology to help vulnerable countries ensure food security, adapt to climate change and even to tackle seasonal famine. New mutant crop varieties shorten the growing process, thereby allowing farmers to plant additional crops during the growing season.
Radioactive materials are used to inspect metal parts and the integrity of welds across a range of industries. For example, new wind turbine towers are checked by placing the radioactive source inside the pipe and the film outside the welds.
Gauges containing radioactive (usually gamma) sources are in wide use in all industries where levels of gasses, liquids, and solids must be checked. They measure the amount of radiation from a source which has been absorbed in materials. These gauges are most useful where heat, pressure, or corrosive substances, such as molten glass or molten metal, make it impossible or difficult to use direct contact gauges.
The ability to use radioisotopes to accurately measure thickness is widely utilized in the production of sheet materials, including metal, textiles, paper, plastics, and others. Density gauges are used where automatic control of a liquid, powder, or solid is important, for example in detergent manufacture.
Radioisotope thermal generators (RTGs) are used in space missions. The heat generated by the decay of a radioactive source, often plutonium-238, is used to generate electricity. The Voyager space probes, the Cassini mission to Saturn, the Galileo mission to Jupiter, and the New Horizons mission to Pluto are all powered by RTGs. The Spirit and Opportunity Mars rovers have used a mix of solar panels for electricity and RTGs for heat. The latest Mars rover, Curiosity, is much bigger and uses RTGs for heat and electricity as solar panels would not be able to supply enough electricity.