Nuclear power is the use of nuclear reactions to produce electricity. Nuclear power can be obtained from nuclear fission, nuclear decay and nuclear fusion reactions. Presently, the vast majority of electricity from nuclear power is produced by nuclear fission of uranium and plutonium in nuclear power plants. Nuclear power is a clean and efficient way of boiling water to make steam, which turns turbines to produce electricity. Nuclear power plants use low-enriched uranium fuel to produce electricity through a process called fission—the splitting of uranium atoms in a nuclear reactor.
Nuclear power has one of the lowest levels of fatalities per unit of energy generated compared to other energy sources. Coal, petroleum, natural gas and hydroelectricity each have caused more fatalities per unit of energy due to air pollution and accidents. Since its commercialization in the 1970s, nuclear power has prevented about 1.84 million air pollution-related deaths and the emission of about 64 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent that would have otherwise resulted from the burning of fossil fuels. Accidents in nuclear power plants include the Chernobyl disaster in the Soviet Union in 1986, the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in Japan in 2011, and the more contained Three Mile Island accident in the United States in 1979.
The discovery of nuclear fission occurred in 1938 following over four decades of work on the science of radioactivity and the elaboration of new nuclear physics that described the components of atoms. Soon after the discovery of the fission process, it was realized that a fissioning nucleus can induce further nucleus fissions, thus inducing a self-sustaining chain reaction. Once this was experimentally confirmed in 1939, scientists in many countries petitioned their governments for support of nuclear fission research, just on the cusp of World War II, for the development of a nuclear weapon.
First power generation
The first organization to develop practical nuclear power was the U.S. Navy, with the S1W reactor for the purpose of propelling submarines and aircraft carriers. The first nuclear-powered submarine, USS Nautilus, was put to sea in January 1954. The S1W reactor was a Pressurized Water Reactor. This design was chosen because it was simpler, more compact, and easier to operate compared to alternative designs, thus more suitable to be used in submarines. This decision would result in the PWR being the reactor of choice also for power generation, thus having a lasting impact on the civilian electricity market in the years to come.
On June 27, 1954, the Obninsk Nuclear Power Plant in the USSR became the world’s first nuclear power plant to generate electricity for a power grid, producing around 5 megawatts of electric power. The world’s first commercial nuclear power station, Calder Hall at Windscale, England was connected to the national power grid on 27 August 1956. In common with a number of other generation I reactors, the plant had the dual purpose of producing electricity and plutonium-239, the latter for the nascent nuclear weapons program in Britain.
The normal operation of nuclear power plants and facilities produce radioactive waste, or nuclear waste. This type of waste is also produced during plant decommissioning. There are two broad categories of nuclear waste: low-level waste and high-level waste. The first has low radioactivity and includes contaminated items such as clothing, which poses limited threat. High-level waste is mainly the spent fuel from nuclear reactors, which is very radioactive and must be cooled and then safely disposed of or reprocessed.
Disposal of nuclear waste is often considered the most politically divisive aspect in the lifecycle of a nuclear power facility. With the lack of movement of nuclear waste in the 2 billion year old natural nuclear fission reactors in Oklo, Gabon being cited as “a source of essential information today”. Experts suggest that centralized underground repositories which are well-managed, guarded, and monitored, would be a vast improvement There is an “international consensus on the advisability of storing nuclear waste in deep geological repositories”. With the advent of new technologies, other methods including horizontal drillhole disposal into geologically inactive areas have been proposed.
Nuclear power plants have three unique characteristics that affect their safety, as compared to other power plants. Firstly, intensely radioactive materials are present in a nuclear reactor. Their release to the environment could be hazardous. Secondly, the fission products, which make up most of the intensely radioactive substances in the reactor, continue to generate a significant amount of decay heat even after the fission chain reaction has stopped. If the heat cannot be removed from the reactor, the fuel rods may overheat and release radioactive materials. Thirdly, a criticality accident (a rapid increase of the reactor power) is possible in certain reactor designs if the chain reaction cannot be controlled. These three characteristics have to be taken into account when designing nuclear reactors.
With a death rate of 0.07 per TWh, nuclear power is the safest energy source per unit of energy generated. Energy produced by coal, petroleum, natural gas and hydropower has caused more deaths per unit of energy generated due to air pollution and energy accidents. This is found when comparing the immediate deaths from other energy sources to both the immediate and the latent, or predicted, indirect cancer deaths from nuclear energy accidents. When the direct and indirect fatalities (including fatalities resulting from the mining and air pollution) from nuclear power and fossil fuels are compared, the use of nuclear power has been calculated to have prevented about 1.8 million deaths between 1971 and 2009, by reducing the proportion of energy that would otherwise have been generated by fossil fuels. Following the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster, it has been estimated that if Japan had never adopted nuclear power, accidents and pollution from coal or gas plants would have caused more lost years of life.
Serious impacts of nuclear accidents are often not directly attributable to radiation exposure, but rather social and psychological effects. Evacuation and long-term displacement of affected populations created problems for many people, especially the elderly and hospital patients. Forced evacuation from a nuclear accident may lead to social isolation, anxiety, depression, psychosomatic medical problems, reckless behavior, and suicide. A comprehensive 2005 study on the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster concluded that the mental health impact is the largest public health problem caused by the accident.Frank N. von Hippel, an American scientist, commented that a disproportionate fear of ionizing radiation (radiophobia) could have long-term psychological effects on the population of contaminated areas following the Fukushima disaster. In January 2015, the number of Fukushima evacuees was around 119,000, compared with a peak of around 164,000 in June 2012.