By Ryan Lei, C2ST Intern, Neuqua Valley High School
How does a productive, powerful, and zero-emission source of energy sound? Introducing: Nuclear power plants!
In order to understand the awesome power behind these structures, it’s important to understand the force that lets these power plants create energy: nuclear fission. Fission occurs when a nucleus (the center) of an uranium atom splits into two, which produces heat. When this splitting process occurs, each half is then able to split again. This causes a chain reaction responsible for the explosive power of a modern day nuclear weapon. However, when this chain reaction process is executed in a controlled environment, it produces massive amounts of energy that is not only extremely effective, but more importantly, very sustainable and environmentally-friendly.
Nuclear power plants are a zero-emission source of energy, meaning that they emit no harmful carbon-dioxide into the atmosphere like fossil fuels do. This is due to the core design of a nuclear power plant. Uranium is stacked into rods, and hundreds of these rods are collected into an assembly. Hundreds of these assemblies form the core of every nuclear power plant that exists today. Imagine a bundle of mentos packs, and hundreds of these bundles being placed in close proximity to each other. That is what forms the heart of these massive structures, and ultimately each of the mentos in each stack continues splitting in half. The mentos are the uranium, the pack of mentos is a rod, and the bundle of packs is an assembly.
Now imagine you take those bundles of mentos and submerge them into Diet Coke. This process produces energy!
Similarly, the assemblies are submerged in water, and the heat generated from the resulting fission turns the surrounding water into steam, which then goes on to spin a turbine to produce carbon-free electricity. The excess steam goes through a condenser and is turned back into liquid water and reused in the system.
So we’ve got this powerful nuclear power plant that can create energy and not harm the environment! Then why isn’t this energy source the new norm? The answer: nuclear power plants are EXPENSIVE. In order to handle this power, countless security and procedural protocols have to be implemented, as well as many design experts creating and recreating newer and improved designs. All this leads to is more time and funds being spent on each plant constructed. The AP1000 reactors in Georgia have risen in cost estimates from $14 billion to a whopping $23 billion, surpassing all previous cost estimates.
Another issue is something known as the discount rate. Imagine compound interest, in which you make more money over time, but the opposite. Discount rate is the ratio between how much an investment in our future is worth to the current cost of this investment. The higher the discount rate, the less beneficial long-term projects will be and less results will be yielded from a present-day investment. Currently the US is sitting at a discount rate of 12%, while Japan is at 2-3%. According to a study of 22 countries conducted by the NEA (Nuclear Energy Agency), a discount rate of approximately 10% favors fossil fuels in terms of cost, while a discount rate of about 3% favors nuclear energy in terms of cost. The US has a ways to go in order to minimize the cost of nuclear energy, but the future’s looking bright for this new form of energy production.
Fortunately, the US is an extremely technologically advanced country. New prototypes and proposals for future nuclear power plants have already yielded cost-mitigating techniques and developments. Instead of making huge power plants that output massive amounts of energy, many leading scientists have proposed making smaller, more modular plants. These smaller reactors would need fewer security protocols to be implemented, have lower operating and maintenance costs, and be less likely to overheat. Also, as technology develops, the reactors would be able to emit more overall energy, and have less down time in terms of functionality as well. All of the above would make nuclear power plants a more affordable and budget-friendly source of energy, while maintaining its environment-friendly status.
All things considered, if countries choose to invest and focus on nuclear energy, it’s very possible to have a viable, cost-efficient, and environment-friendly source of energy in the near future.