The Nuclear Energy Dilemma

Taylore Jaques
November 26, 2016

Submitted as coursework for PH240, Stanford University, Fall 2016


Fig. 1: Nuclear power plant in Cattenom, France. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

In the past two decades, "clean" energy has been on the forefront of politics, large-scale industries, and commercial products. It is clear that fossil fuels are no longer going to be a sufficient option to supply energy since the diminishing number of natural resources. The United States' reliance on oil and other natural resources for energy have caused a sort of dependence on other countries and have significantly impacted our foreign policies. [1] So where is our future in attaining energy headed as a nation and as a world? This report examines one possible alternative.

What Is Nuclear Energy?

Nuclear Energy is energy obtained through a process called fissioning, more specifically, the fissioning of uranium. Fissioning is the process of striking a U-235 atom with a neutron, causing it to fragment into "fission products". These fission products also release neutrons that cause other U-235 atoms to fragment, ultimately leading to a chain reaction of splitting of atoms. Each fission releases around 200 million electron volts of heat, which can be used to drive a steam power plant. In 2015, the world nuclear power generation increased by 1.3 percent and the US produced over 189.9 million tonnes of oil equivalent energy in nuclear energy in power plants located all over the United States, much like the power plant in Fig. 1. [2] This newer form of acquiring energy has some benefits over other methods, such as the burning of fossil fuels or solar power energy that certain countries acknowledged and decided it was worth investing in. So what are these benefits?

Benefits of Nuclear Energy

Nuclear Energy is most sought after because it is clean and environmentally friendly. Many believe that both renewable and nuclear energies, as virtually carbon free energy sources, could provide a major solution to global warming and energy security. [3] Another benefit of nuclear energy is it is more reliable than other resources. For example, solar panels depends on sunlight and wind turbines rely on airflow. Nuclear energy does not rely on the weather. Added benefits of using nuclear energy is how much more proficient it is than other energy sources. The fissioning of 1 gram of U-235 releases 2.28 × 104 kw-hr of heat, which is equivalent to the heat of combustion of 3 tons of coal or 13 barrels of oil. [4] There are clear advantages of using nuclear energy, so why isn't the rest of the world investing in it?

Why Not Use Nuclear Energy?

As I mentioned earlier, fissioning is the splitting of U-235. Unfortunately, U-235 is not very common in nature. U-238 is the form of uranium most common in nature, 99.3% of whole uranium; whereas U-235 is only 0.7% of whole uranium. [4] This poses a problem in the mining of uranium, making it expensive and also finite! Even if countries were able to overcome the cost of mining uranium, the cost of sustaining a nuclear power plant is around $36 dollars per megawatt-hour. This cost includes capital, fuel, and operating costs. [5] If countries can also afford to pay this hefty cost to sustain their nuclear power plant, they also have to decide if it is worth risking the health of their citizens with the nuclear waste that is produced in these plants. About 95 percent of items that have touched the nuclear waste, like gloves, are considered low-level waste and will return back to safe levels of radioactivity within 100 years. [6] That is looking at only low-level waste, whereas the high-level waste will not return back to safe levels of radioactivity for thousands of years. Therefore, nuclear waste must be inspected and stored for hundreds of years, which is an additional cost, and could be unsafe for citizens in the area. The most dangerous potential hazard in this process comes from the spent fuel that is left at the end of the process in the reactors. The number of spent fuel elements in storage is growing rapidly and evidently will continue to do so for some time Cooling ponds are satisfactory for short-term storage, but clearly they cannot be a permanent resting place for spent fuel. These ponds are closely watched and the actinides in the spent elements remain dangerously radioactive for hundreds of thousands of years! [7] The fuel that is reprocessed after a couple of months of sitting in these ponds, the residual fuel material is recovered which stands as another potential problem. [7] It is easy for countries to extract Plutonium from spent fuel and make nuclear weapons with it. This kind of power getting in the wrong hands could pose as a potential threat or the potential for a massive nuclear power plant to be a target for terrorist activities is another motive that countries choose not to invest in nuclear energy.

Future of Nuclear Energy

Nuclear energy has the potential to be an alternative energy source to fossil fuels for those who can afford the cost of the massive power plants. With the advancement of technology and nuclear fuel, it is possible the cost of nuclear energy might decrease, allowing for other countries to invest in a more "affordable" nuclear energy. The future of nuclear energy also hinges on the potential success of breed reactors. To create breed reactors, the neutrons from the fissioning of U-235 are used to cause a radioactive transformation of U-238 to Pu-239, which is then fissionable. By a similar reaction Th-233 can be converted to U-233 which is also fissionable. Thus, in principle, by means of properly developed breeder reactors it is possible to consume whole uranium and thorium. [4] Perhaps, if there is success found in breeder reactors, more countries will invest in nuclear energy.

© Taylore Jaques. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] A. B. Lovins, "A Farewell to Fossil Fuels," Foreign Affairs. 91, No. 2, 134 (March/April 2012).

[2] "BP Statistical Review of World Energy," British Petroleum, June 2016

[3] K. Menyah and Y. Wolde-Rufael, "CO2 Emissions, Nuclear Energy, Renewable Energy and Economic Growth in the US," Energy Policy 38, 2911 (2010).

[4] M. K. Hubbert, "Nuclear Energy and the Fossil Fuels," Shell Development Company, Publication No. 95, June 1956.

[5] "Nuclear Costs in Context," Nuclear Energy Institute, April 2016.

[6] Y. S. Tang and J. H. Saling, Radioactive Waste Management (Hemisphere Publishing, 1990).

[7] "Management of Commercially Generated Radioactive Waste, Vol. 1," U.S. Department of Energy, DOE/EIA-0046F, October 1980.