10 Interesting Facts About Nuclear Energy
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A common goal many countries share is reaching net-zero carbon emissions. In 2015, nearly 200 parties signed The Paris Agreement, an international treaty to mitigate climate change and lower Earth’s temperature to around 34.7°(1.5°C).
While some countries debate the viability of nuclear energy as a low-carbon energy source, others leverage it to meet the growing energy demand. For example, Germany and Spain are phasing out nuclear, whereas China had 15 nuclear plants under construction in May 2022.
Below are 10 interesting facts about nuclear energy that the average person might not know.
1. Nuclear energy is the most reliable energy source in the U.S.
According to the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), nuclear power is the country’s most reliable energy source. Although the first reactor stations started operating in the 1950s, nuclear energy has accounted for one-fifth of the yearly energy supply in the U.S. since 1990.
Nuclear power plants produce maximum power over 92% of the time, almost two times more than coal and natural gas and three times more than solar and wind plants. One reason why nuclear is so reliable is that power plants require little maintenance and can operate for long periods without refueling.
2. Nuclear energy powers rovers on Mars.
Another interesting fact about nuclear energy is that one of NASA’s Mars Exploration Rovers (MER), Perseverance, runs on a nuclear battery to navigate the dusty, cold planet. The rover’s nuclear battery can last for 14 years, which is critical because NASA conducts many kinds of experiments, particularly those that require electrical power.
Other members, like Curiosity, relied on solar power to operate. However, nuclear energy is a better option than solar because there isn’t enough energy coming from the sun at certain times of the Martian year.
3. Nuclear energy releases zero carbon emissions.
Many people are aware of the current climate crisis. Although nuclear energy requires uranium, a nonrenewable resource, many experts suggest this form of energy is one of the cleanest. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), nuclear plants do not directly contribute to carbon emissions or air pollution.
However, it’s important to note that using fossil fuels for the mining and refining of uranium ore and reactor fuel production processes requires massive amounts of energy.
Power plants are built with metal and concrete, whose production also contributes to emissions. The emissions from this energy might be associated with nuclear plants, meaning some activities believe nuclear power is not sustainable.
4. There are 440 nuclear plants present in over 30 countries.
As of September 2022, 10% of the world’s electricity is from nuclear power and is produced by 440 nuclear power reactors. Additionally, more than 50 countries use nuclear energy in 220 research reactors, which produce isotopes for medical and industrial applications and are used for training.
Italy and Denmark rely on imported nuclear energy for around 10% of their total power. In 2021 alone, nuclear power plants supplied 2653 TWh (terawatt-hour). To put that figure into perspective, one TWh is equivalent to one trillion watts — the average home uses 893 kWh (kilowatt-hour) per month.
5. Nuclear power plants can be placed in urban and rural areas.
Since nuclear power plants do not pollute the air or add to carbon emissions levels, they can be built in both urban and rural areas. Nuclear plants do not radically change their surrounding environments, meaning the health and well-being of nearby residents are not negatively affected.
However, countries require advanced technology and must sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to obtain the uranium and plutonium to build nuclear power plants.
6. The byproduct of nuclear energy production is radioactive material.
A handful of U.S. agencies regulate radioactive materials and radiation exposure, known as nuclear power plant byproducts. In other words, radioactive waste from nuclear energy plants is hazardous. These U.S. organizations license and regulate the use of radioactive materials:
- Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC)
- Food and Drug Administration (FDA)
- Conference of Radiation Control Program Directors (CRCPD)
- Organization of Agreement States (OAS)
- State governments
The main goal of these organizations is to protect the health of the public and the environment from potentially dangerous radioactive materials.
7. The state with the most commercial reactors in Illinois.
Around 92 reactors in the U.S. provide nuclear power to generate electricity for 28 states. Surprisingly, Illinois has 11 reactors, the most of any state and receives over 50% of its total energy from the reactors.
In September 2021, Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker signed a sweeping clean energy bill to reduce the state’s carbon emissions by 2050 significantly. One important element of the bill was to bail out two critical plants, the Byron and Dresden sites and keep them from shutting down.
8. The nuclear energy industry provides jobs and helps the economy.
Another reason why Pritzker signed the bill mentioned above is that nuclear plants support job creation and the country’s economy and provide clean energy to Illinois residents.
According to a Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) document for U.S. legislators, the nuclear energy industry supports 475,000 U.S. jobs and contributes $60 billion to the U.S. GDP. These jobs are well-paying, and various nuclear-related projects are expected to continue throughout the decade.
9. Nuclear power plants keep energy costs down.
While building nuclear plants is costly, they are relatively cheap to operate, which helps keep energy costs down. One of the more interesting facts about nuclear energy is that it’s immune from the economic fluctuations that typically affect coal and gas prices.
It’s also possible for nuclear power plants to incorporate renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar. MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI) researcher Jesse Jenkins and his colleagues at the Argonne National Laboratory created an optimized model for nuclear plant operation. If these plants operated flexibly, they could generate more revenue, cut carbon emissions and keep electricity costs down.
10. The risk of accidents at nuclear power plants is low.
It’s common for people to believe that generating nuclear energy could be dangerous. Only three significant accidents—Chernobyl, Fukushima, and Three-Mile Island—occurred in the 60-year history of civil nuclear power generation.
While these events did have negative consequences, safety is a top priority at nuclear power plants. The overall risk of accidents is relatively low, making nuclear power generation extremely safe.
The Future of Nuclear Energy
When the average person hears the term nuclear, they might think of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. Others might know that governments develop arsenals of powerful nuclear missiles.
Whether nuclear energy is a viable alternative to traditional fossil fuels is still up for debate. One drawback of nuclear power plants is the waste they produce. Still, some experts suggest that the amount of waste is a small price to pay for the benefits of this energy source. Nuclear power might be a realistic way to reach climate change targets, but only time will tell.
Hopefully, you’ve learned something new from this list of interesting facts about nuclear energy. Consider sharing some of these facts with a friend to help them understand the pros and cons of nuclear energy.
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About the author
Steve is the Managing Editor of Environment.co and regularly contributes articles related to wildlife, biodiversity, and recycling. His passions include wildlife photography and bird watching.