A Case for Nuclear Energy

In an era when the entire planet seems in a panicked snit over the idiotic idea of climate change, why is the idea of nuclear energy met with greater disapproval than the idea of a “President Donald Trump”? I have several theories on the subject, but the crux of the issue boils down to the fact that people just don’t know science. They’re terrified of the word ‘nuclear’. Call it ignorance if you wish; however, ignorance is curable—stupid goes to the core (and has no cure). Let’s take a crack at eradicating some of the ignorance and leave stupid alone.

Energy Independence

Personally, I’m quite in favor of nuclear power. However, I have a hard time arguing against the power that comes from the abundant deposits of natural gas contained in the continental US. It provides the energy necessary for our society to continue functioning as it does. It’s cheap. It’s ours. It doesn’t depend on an allegiance to other countries with large reserves of natural gas/oil such as Russia, Venezuala or OPEC nations. It allows the US an independence from these countries unlike anything in recent memory (think back to the gas lines of the 70’s—that’s the NINTEEN 70’s—just saying).

Nuclear energy, however, rises above the energy derived from the “clean” energy associated with natural gas obtained from fracking. Before condemning that statement, ask yourself, “how DO we get energy from nuclear sources?”. From a nuclear power plant—correct. But how? Once you ask that question, you open your mind to the possibility that nuclear power might not be all that bad. And you’d be right. So let’s take a look at just how a power plant obtains its energy. Note, I didn’t say ‘nuclear power plant’.

How do we get electricity?

Almost all utility-derived electricity comes from an electric generator which transforms mechanical energy into electrical energy. Mechanical energy forces a generator to rotate and the resulting current becomes the electricity we know and love today. The next question to ask is “what is the SOURCE of that mechanical energy”. In other words, what gets the “electromagnetic induction motor” running? For utility-scale electricity, there are two main sources…hydro and thermal. Hang on…I didn’t say nuclear…what gives?

Most people are familiar with hydroelectricity—a dam is constructed, the water flows and physically rotates the turbines. The rotating turbines generate electricity and the flooded land behind the dam creates untold wealth with a wonderful lake where only a stream/river/creek existed before. It is, dare I say…a political utopia!! It creates expensive lakefront property for “evil/rich” Republicans to buy; it creates a massive base for “tax/spend” Democrats to exploit/tax/demagogue AAANNNNDDDD…not one molecule of carbon dioxide is emitted unless someone on the lake belches after taking a drink of their beer. But let’s face it, that molecule of CO2 was already there in the first place and can’t be blamed on the dam (though some will try). Hydroelectric power is pretty close to ‘as good as it gets’. However, rivers/creeks/streams are finite in number…people’s expansion is not. We need another source of our life-giving electricity.

Other forms of bulk-scale electricity work on the same principle—physically rotating a turbine. However, they rely on thermal (heat) energy to turn the turbine. A typical coal or natural gas powered plant takes the combustion energy from the source fuel and uses the thermal energy (heat) evolved from combustion to convert water into steam. Converting water into steam creates a pressure gradient (Ideal Gas Law; PV = nRT) that spins the turbine and ultimately generates the desired electricity. While there are pros and cons to these fuel sources (emissions being the greatest concern; cheap electricity being the main benefit), nuclear energy tops them both. Why? It gets rid of the concern without elevating the cost.

No Nukes!  Not!

A nuclear power plant derives its energy not from combustion, but from the natural decay process of many isotopes. This decay process also involves the emission of energy—ultimately the source of heat for the steam that drives the turbines and generates electricity. Uranium-235, the more fissile isotope of uranium (relative to 238) is the fuel source used at nuclear power plants. As this isotope (235) decays, it produces energy; that energy is transferred (by way of carrier gas, liquid or even a liquefied metal) to a secondary water source which ultimately becomes steam and turns the plant turbines. In that way, the radiation source is shielded from the driving force of the turbines—it is this added safety protocol that makes nuclear power safe.

But what about all that smoke I see from every nuclear power plant? I see it for miles!! Massive white smoke plumes billowing into the air!! Calm down!! The smoke is white; it isn’t black or blue. No, we’re not electing a pope—that’s just what steam looks like when it hits cooler temperatures. Think about this…you see airplanes all the time leaving contour trails in the sky. What is the source of that white tail? Water. Turned to ice at the extremely low temperatures of the upper atmosphere. Yes, jets use fossil fuels and the two by products from that combustion are steam and CO2, but the only visible by-product of that combustion is ICE from the steam/water/ice conversion (CO2 doesn’t sublime—even at the temps of the upper atmosphere…close, but not quite). The plumes of white “smoke” coming from nuclear power plants are actually less damaging (if you believe CO2 emissions are environmentally harmful) than each and every airline flight crisscrossing the globe as you read this.

So I ask you…what’s your hang-up about nuclear energy? Is it the word nuclear? Despite myriad safety precautions built into EVERY nuclear power plant—primary, secondary and tertiary, what’s your fundamental problem with nuclear power? If we are looking for a SERIOUS alternative source of energy for the power needs of this planet—in the absence of fossil fuels—nuclear power might just top your list.

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