|Fig. 1: A nuclear power station. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)|
Development of renewable energy sources is essential to protect the environment. The significant increase in carbon gas emissions and the consequent global warming have led to an active search for green energy sources such as solar, wind, water, and nuclear. Among these, wind and solar power generations are thought to be the most prominent sources, with tremendous growth in recent years. However, their irregular and unpredictable production remains a big challenge in the eventual goal of completely replacing coal-based energy supply. Nuclear energy makes up a relatively small percentage of the total energy supply; however, it can be an effective means of providing energy.
One of the main advantages of nuclear power is its zero carbon output. Because it produces energy using nuclear fission with no chemical burning, zero carbon dioxide--the main element causing the global warming--is produced. When compared to natural gas production, which still produces half the carbon dioxide of coal-based systems, this is a significant advantage. Another main benefit of nuclear power is in its high capacity factor (ratio of actual energy output over a given period of time to the maximum possible energy output). When compared to other green energy sources such as sun, wind, or water, which all vary in their supplies, the nuclear power plants are able to produce energy with an average capacity factor of 92 percent.  In comparison, no other green energy sources reach the capacity factor of 40%.
In an ideal situation with perfect conditions, nuclear fission energy provides effective, cheap, and safe means to produce energy. However, because it requires Uranium as a fuel, there are many potential dangers for workers and the surrounding environment. Furthermore, radioactive byproducts add to the public concern of related health effects. Additionally, while it still exists in abundance on Earth, Uranium will eventually run out, as is the case with hydrocarbons.  One of the possible solutions to this problem is to further develop and implement nuclear fusion technology. The primary fuel used in the fusion system--oftentimes hydrogen or water--are non-radioactive and exist in abundance, which makes this a very appealing solution to the energy needs. However, more research and development are required for implementation of this technology.
One of the more timely solutions is to use nuclear power plant, such as one shown in Fig. 1, as an energy buffer for other green energy sources.  For example, nuclear power plants can be used in minimum capacity when solar or wind energy supplies are at full capacity. When there is lack of sun or wind, which leads to irregular and unpredictable energy production, the nuclear energy production can increase to ensure that sufficient energy is provided. In doing so, the traditionally unpredictable green energy sources can become more reliable, while buying time for development of fusion technologies that will eventually replace fission-based systems. Whether it is by complementing other forms of green energy or through development over time, nuclear power provides a compelling opportunity to combat the climate change.
© Daniel Shin. 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.
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