There are other forms of energy that are part of the national electricity supply, such as nuclear energy, which is cleaner than fossil fuels, although not as clean as renewable energy.
Almost 20% of electricity in the U.S. comes from nuclear energy, Some states generate more than half of their electricity from nuclear power.
What is Nuclear Energy?
Generated in nuclear power plants, nuclear energy is produced from splitting uranium atoms in a process known as fission. During this process, heat is created to produce steam, which is then used by a turbine generator to produce electricity.
Unlike coal-fired power plants, nuclear plants don’t burn any fuel, so they produce zero greenhouse gas emissions even though they run 24 hours a day. Because of the massive scale of these plants, nuclear energy is the lowest-cost source of electricity in the U.S., making it a critical part of the strategy to meet electricity demand.
Examples of nuclear energy uses include electricity to power residential homes and businesses, agricultural processes, medical diagnoses and treatments, and even space exploration.
Nuclear power has been a source of electricity generation worldwide for over 60 years, providing reliable energy to more than 30 countries. Currently, there are more than 400 commercial nuclear power plants around the world and 92 nuclear plants in the U.S.
Related: Learn about wind energy.
How Does Nuclear Energy Work?
The center of a nuclear power plant is the nuclear reactor, which controls the fission process where uranium atoms split and release energy. Like traditional power plants, nuclear reactors create a chain reaction that turns water into steam and pushes that steam into a generator to produce electricity.
Where nuclear energy differs is how that heat is created. Other power plants use fossil fuels, like coal, oil, or natural gas, to create heat. A nuclear reactor generates heat by splitting atoms, known as nuclear fission.
How Common is Uranium?
Uranium is an incredibly abundant metal that can be found naturally in rocks all over the world. As uranium breaks down, it generates heat in the Earth’s crust. That same process generates power in a nuclear reactor to produce nuclear energy.
Uranium must go through a process called enrichment to make it more likely to undergo fission. Enriched uranium can then be used as fuel in nuclear power plants for anywhere from three to five years, after which it must be safely disposed of because the material is radioactive.
Unlike coal, oil, and natural gas, uranium does not produce greenhouse gases. Uranium can even be recycled into other types of fuel after its use in a nuclear reactor.
Related: Explore other sources of renewable energy.
What About Nuclear Waste?
One commonly cited disadvantage of nuclear energy is the production of potentially hazardous waste. Nuclear power plants produce radioactive waste in the form of spent uranium fuel that must be carefully stored and disposed of to prevent negative effects on the environment and individuals’ health.
Fortunately, with the advancement of technology, future nuclear power plants will be home to more advanced reactors, which will generate significantly less nuclear waste. Some of these next-generation nuclear plants are expected to be under construction by 2030.
What are the Advantages of Nuclear Energy?
Nuclear energy has an incredibly low environmental impact and doesn’t have the devastating effects on groundwater, land, and other natural resources that fossil fuels do. To date, nuclear energy is also the only power source that can produce a constant, reliable supply of electricity without emitting greenhouse gases.
Because nuclear power relies on an abundant natural resource for fuel, it has one of the smallest carbon footprints of any energy source available today, making nuclear energy just as important to clean energy goals as wind and solar energy.
Nuclear energy also creates thousands of jobs while remaining a cost-effective option for generating electricity. Nuclear power can help produce the electricity needed to replace fossil fuels, making it an integral part of the global response to climate change.
What are the Challenges of Nuclear Energy?
Nuclear power plants are expensive to build, and additional costs are associated with the transportation, storage, and disposal of fuel for nuclear reactors and the resulting waste. But nuclear energy also creates jobs, contributing to the economy and reducing reliance on fossil fuels.
Another challenge for nuclear energy is public perception. Many people perceive nuclear power as dangerous, largely based on incorrect associations with nuclear weapons and the portrayal of nuclear energy in pop culture. But nuclear fission is a very stable and safe process, and the nuclear industry is highly regulated.
Nuclear power is a reliable and cost-effective source of clean energy. Nuclear energy makes major contributions to the economy, the job market, and potential solutions to climate change, providing a source of electricity that doesn’t produce greenhouse gases and helping to reduce national and global dependence on fossil fuels.