So, What Really Is Nuclear Power?

Sean Lee
May 19, 2018

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2018


Fig. 1: Anti-Nuclear power plant rally in Japan. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Finding a cheap, reliable and infinite power source has been a goal of humanity for millennia, and remains elusive today. However, humans have developed more and more efficient means of getting power, from the days of dams and windmills to today, when nuclear power plants are relatively common. During its development and promotion in the mid-20th century, nuclear power was touted as cheap, clean power. However, The impressive expansion of nuclear reactors in the 1960s and 1970 slowed down after the meltdown in Harrisburg and the nuclear explosion in Chernobyl. [1] Despite significant risks and challenges, nuclear energy remains a feasible option in many areas with existing infrastructure, providing that this infrastructure is well-maintained. Nuclear energy is currently responsible for helping generating 15.7% of global electricity. [1]

Nuclear Energy: Something of a Past?

Nuclear energy is not the wave of the future anymore; it is an established and somewhat declining practice. People are more leery of nuclear power than they used to be, but also want to enjoy its benefits (a great deal of power supplied relatively cheaply, with the main active byproduct being harmless steam). Participants noted that nuclear power was accepted until a better solution was found. Energy dependency emerged as an important topic. [2]

There is also a down-side to nuclear energy. As noted above, there have been significant meltdowns and disasters. Many still protest nuclear energy for its impact on the environment and public health, as they did with the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi Disaster (Fig. 1). Still, nuclear power is popular in many areas. In South Korea, the dominant imaginary was of atoms for development which the state not only imported but incorporated into its scientific, technological and political practices. [3]


Despite some challenges, nuclear energy remains an option in many areas that have a well-maintained nuclear infrastructure. However, one must keep obstacles in mind: The important challenges examined were (1) cost, (2) safety, (3) waste management, and (4) proliferation risk. [1] The days of nuclear energys predominance and growth may lie in the past, but that is no reason to throw out working present systems that still add significantly to overall power generation.

© Sean Lee. 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] L. Mez, "Nuclear Energy - Any Solution for Sustainability and Climate Protection?" Energy Policy 48, 56 (2012).

[2] V. Luoma-aho and M. Vos, "Monitoring the Complexities: Nuclear Power and Public Opinion," Public Relat. Rev. 35, 120 (2009).

[3] S. Jasanoff and S.-H. Kim, "Containing the Atom: Sociotechnical Imaginaries and Nuclear Power in the United States and South Korea," Minerva 47, 119 (2009).