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What is the Cost of Nuclear Energy?

Instructor: Jamie Cranmore

Jamie has taught Middle School Science and History. She has a master's degree in teaching.

Although there are many benefits to the production of nuclear energy, this nonrenewable energy source remains controversial. In this lesson, we will examine the financial and environmental costs of nuclear energy production.

How is Nuclear Energy Produced?

Nuclear energy is used to provide electricity in many countries around the world, including the United States. The production of nuclear energy involves splitting uranium atoms in reactors at nuclear power plants. This creates a tremendous amount of heat, which raises the temperature of water at the plants to create steam. The steam turns turbines which then drive generators to create electricity.

Nuclear Power Plant
nuclear power plant

Uranium

The fuel used in a nuclear power plant is uranium. Uranium is a naturally occurring radioactive element classified as a metal. It's found in many different regions of the planet, primarily Australia, Russia, and Canada. Once mined from the ground, it is processed for use in nuclear power plants.

In terms of energy production, uranium atom fission is a very efficient means of producing heat. Technically, one kilogram of uranium can produce more heat than a ton of burned coal. However, uranium is a nonrenewable resource much like coal and oil. Once depleted, nonrenewable resources can take millions of years to replenish.

Benefits of Nuclear Energy Production

The process of producing nuclear energy is a relatively clean process compared to petroleum or coal energy production. When petroleum or coal is burned to create heat, they both create large amounts of carbon dioxide waste that is released into the air, polluting the atmosphere. Additionally, nuclear energy production is a relatively inexpensive process. However with these benefits come some disadvantages.

The Disadvantages of Nuclear Energy Production

Uranium atom fission creates radioactive toxic waste as a byproduct. The waste doesn't readily break down but instead remains in an ecosystem for thousands to millions of years. If it leaks into the water table, it can ultimately cause cancer to organisms. Research to find ecologically safe disposal facilities for nuclear waste can be costly.

The cost of operating nuclear power plants is also high. Nuclear plant reactors and cooling towers need to be watched twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. In 2014, the average salary of a nuclear technician was more than $74,000 per year. Workers must undergo training to ensure they follow the proper safety regulations to create a safe working environment.

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