Nuclear energy and its future impact

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Nuclear energy and its future impact

Nuclear power is the use of nuclear reactions. It can be obtained from nuclear fission, nuclear decay, and nuclear fusion. Presently, the vast majority of electricity from nuclear power is produced by nuclear fission of uranium and plutonium. Nuclear power is one of the leading low carbon power generation methods of producing electricity. The possibility of generating electricity from nuclear fusion is still at a research phase with no commercial applications.

Nuclear energy comes from splitting atoms in a reactor to heat water into steam, turn a turbine and generate electricity. Ninety-eight nuclear reactors in 30 states generate nearly 20 percent of the nation’s electricity, all without carbon emissions because reactors use uranium, not fossil fuels.

This type of power plants is always on well-operated to avoid interruptions and built to withstand extreme weather, supporting the grid 24/7. All that power and potential from a tiny atom.


Nuclear reactors produce just under 20% of the electricity in the USA. There are over 400 power reactors in the world; about 100 of these are in the USA. They produce base-load electricity 24/7 without emitting pollutants (including CO2) into the atmosphere.

What are the benefits of nuclear energy?

  • The benefits of nuclear energy extend far beyond carbon-free electricity too. Nuclear powers space exploration sterilizes medical equipment, provides potable water through desalination, supplies radioisotopes for cancer treatment and much more.

  • It helps doctors diagnose and heal the sick. For example, cobalt-60, an isotope that commercial nuclear plants can be set up to produce, is used in medical imaging, specialized cancer treatments, and medical equipment sterilization.

  • The Cassini probe that studied Saturn traveled more than 1 billion miles through space using a special type of nuclear generator. Other spacecraft and probes such as the Mars rover Curiosity rely on nuclear energy to power their equipment too.

  • It helps to explore the depths of our oceans and propels the Navy around the globe, as nuclear reactors power submarines and aircraft carriers for national security, all without using a single tank of gas.

  • Nuclear radiation is used to treat food and kill bacteria, insects, and parasites that cause illness.

  • Consumer products that we come across everyday use small amounts of radiation or contain some radioactive material, like smoke detectors or photocopiers. For example, manufacturers sterilize cosmetics, medical bandages and some personal hygiene products using radiation.

  • Readily available drinking water is out of reach for as much as a fifth of the world’s population, a bar to human development. Small modular reactors (SMRs) and advanced reactors can power desalination facilities in underdeveloped areas, turning seawater into potable water.

  • Advanced reactors also will provide heat for processes such as chemical production and metal refining, allowing more industries to avoid carbon emissions. Heat generated by advanced reactors can even be used to keep houses warm in communities surrounding the plant.

  • Innovative designers are working on advanced reactors that will recover and recycle elements in used nuclear fuel that can still produce energy, allowing for more efficient use of nuclear materials.

  • Advanced nuclear technology can generate hydrogen, which could become an alternative engine fuel and play a major role in transportation as a substitute for fossil fuels.

  • Advanced reactors will use a variety of coolants including water, molten salt, high-temperature gas, and liquid metal.

  • Developers are creating simpler designs, incorporating factory construction, and working to lower overall construction and operating costs to be more competitive with other forms of energy generation like natural gas.

Nuclear power plant

Photograph by Ezume Images

The authors of a new MIT study say that unless nuclear energy is meaningfully incorporated into the global mix of low-carbon energy technologies, the challenge of climate change will be much more difficult and costly to solve. For nuclear energy to take its place as a major low-carbon energy source, however, issues of cost and policy need to be addressed.


The study team notes that the electricity sector, in particular, is a prime candidate for deep decarbonization. Global electricity consumption is on track to grow 45 percent by 2040, and the team's analysis shows that the exclusion of nuclear from low-carbon scenarios could cause the average cost of electricity to escalate dramatically.

The researchers found that changes in reactor construction are needed to usher in an era of safer, more cost-effective reactors, including proven construction management practices that can keep nuclear projects on time and on budget.

Nuclear energy can also be released in nuclear fusion, where atoms are combined or fused together to form a larger atom. Fusion is the source of energy in the sun and stars. Developing technology to harness nuclear fusion as a source of energy for heat and electricity generation is the subject of ongoing research, but whether or not it will be a commercially viable technology is not yet clear because of the difficulty in controlling a fusion reaction. They do, however, create radioactive nuclear waste which must be stored carefully.

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