Benefits and Disadvantages of Nuclear Energy

Jesse Kuet
March 22, 2018

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2018


Fig. 1: The Dukovany Power Plant, a typical light water reactor. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

According to the 2017 BP Statistical Review of World Energy, about 4.7% of the world's energy budget is dedicated to nuclear energy. [1] The utilization of nuclear power has been portrayed negatively in the media. Although there are severe consequences if a nuclear power plant goes awry, there are also many benefits associated with its usage. The purpose of this paper is to inform readers about the advantages and disadvantages of using nuclear power to create electrical energy.

Advantages of Nuclear Power

Most light water reactors (See Fig. 1) that make up the world's nuclear capacity create electricity at costs of between $0.025 and $0.07 USD per kilowatt-hour dependent upon the design and requirements of each reactor, and experiences many favorable variables such as government subsidies and research. [2] To put into perspective, in California, the wholesale price to produce electricity from natural gas is approximately $0.05 USD per kilowatt-hour, revealing that nuclear energy may or may not be as costly as other alternatives in certain geographical areas. In addition, nuclear energy by far has the lowest impact on the environment since it does not release any gases like carbon dioxide or methane, which are largely responsible for the greenhouse effect." [3] As a result, this differentiates nuclear energy from fossil fuels in that it does not produce negative carbon externalities as a byproduct, "though some greenhouse gases are released while transporting fuel or extracting energy from uranium." [3] The factor of scarcity is not of concern when it comes to the reactors fuel source, which is primarily uranium. There are roughly 5.5 million tonnes of uranium in the known reserves that could be mined at $130 USD per kilogram. [2] Currently, with the world's consumption of around 66,500 tonnes per year, there is about 80 years worth of fuel with the known reserves since the element is relatively abundant in the earth's crust. The main advantage to nuclear energy is that is it relatively low-cost and consistently runs on its full potential, making it the ideal source to power national grids. [2,4]

Disadvantages of Nuclear Power

The hindrance in the growth of nuclear energy is due to many complex reasons, and a major component is the nuclear waste. The further implementations of nuclear power are limited because although nuclear energy does not produce CO2 the way fossil fuels do, there is still a toxic byproduct produced from uranium-fueled nuclear cycles: radioactive fission waste. 1 tonne of fresh fuel rod waste from a nuclear reactor would give you a fatal dose of radiation in 10 seconds if placed 3 meters away. Plutonium is also of concern, as it increases an exposed person's potential in developing liver, bone, or lung cancer. [5] There is also a negative political perception associated with nuclear plants and nuclear weapons, so expansive growth of nuclear energy is difficult to accomplish. In addition, nuclear power plants could also be ideal targets for terrorists due to the fissile plutonium components of the waste, which could be reused as bomb fuel. [2] Also a terrorist attack on a large reactor would cause a widespread radiation catastrophe at a scale similar to Chernobyl. The final disadvantage is the plant's concentrated level of capital. Although the fuel cost to produce power using nuclear energy is relatively low, there is still the necessity of having highly skilled workers to build, maintain and monitor the operations to ensure the safety and process of the plant.

© Jesse Kuet. The author warrants that the work is the author's own and that Stanford University provided no input other than typesetting and referencing guidelines. 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] "BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2017," British Petroleum, June 2017.

[2] Q. Schiermeier, "Energy Alternatives: Electricity without Carbon," Nature 454, 816 (2008).

[3] T. Thomas, ""Advantages of Nuclear Energy Use," Physics 241, Stanford University, Winter 2016.

[4] G. Cravens, Power to Save the World: The Truth About Nuclear Energy (Knopf, 2008).

[5] D. M. Taylor, "Environmental Plutonium in Humans," Appl. Radiat. Isotopes 46, 1245 (1995).