What are the advantages and disadvantages of nuclear energy?

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With respect to the military application of nuclear energy, there are undoubtedly alarming risks.  A scenario of a rogue group or state obtaining or using a nuclear weapon is a real one.

However, the other lens in which to view one of the benefits of nuclear energy is through deterrence...

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With respect to the military application of nuclear energy, there are undoubtedly alarming risks.  A scenario of a rogue group or state obtaining or using a nuclear weapon is a real one.

However, the other lens in which to view one of the benefits of nuclear energy is through deterrence theory. The theory, broadly outlined, means that the vast destructive power of nuclear weapons, and the threat of their use, forces adversaries to attempt to achieve accommodation through other means. Or, at a minimum, it can prevent countries from pursuing military solutions. 

The classic case study in deterrence is the Cold War. For a period of nearly 50 years, the United States and the USSR existed in state of military and political tension, but war never broke out between the two superpowers. The primary reason was that both nations held vast arsenals of nuclear weapons, and any full-scale war may have resulted in mutual destruction.

Thus, it can be argued that nuclear energy and its application to weapons, has ironically brought about a more peaceful world.

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Many organizations take firm positions for or against nuclear power. Some of the advantages and disadvantages are listed below.

  1. The use of nuclear power reduces the consumption of fossil fuels like coal and oil. Using less fossil fuels reduces the amount of greenhouse gas emissions such as carbon dioxide.

  2. Fossil fuels are being used at a rate faster than they can be produced which means they will not be accessible for future generations. Uranium will be accessible for many years.

  3. The cost of nuclear fuel, uranium, is approximately 20% of the cost of the energy it generates. In the case of nuclear power less fuel generates more energy because the savings on the transport, extraction, and handling of the raw materials is significantly less

  4. Nuclear power is generated 90% of the time, which means that the production of energy is close to continuous which results in lowered the price volatility.

  5. Nuclear energy production does not depend on natural elements in the way solar or wind does.

  6. Nuclear energy production is clean therefore it does not contribute to poor air quality in the way that the use of fossil fuel does. Poor air quality contributes to diseases such as asthma that reduces quality of life.

Disadvantages of Nuclear Energy:

  1. Although the safety systems at nuclear power plants are sophisticated, the threat of operator error exists. Nuclear accidents can be devastating since there is no guarantee that operators will make proper decisions. Two examples of catastrophic incidents are Chernobyl and Fukushima.

  2. Nuclear waste management is one of main disadvantages. Radioactivity and its risks take years to eliminate, and the cost of waste management is high.

  3. Nuclear reactors and nuclear plants have limited lives. When a nuclear reactor reaches its expiration, it has to be dismantled. The cost to construct a nuclear power plant is high therefore; the need to build them relatively frequently is high.

  4. Nuclear power plants can be terrorist targets.

  5. Nuclear power depends upon the use of uranium, which is not mined in all countries that have nuclear power plants. This makes the cost of nuclear energy low but the price for the raw materials high.

  6. In addition, there are countries that do not have nuclear technology therefore; they have to bring in highly trained, highly paid experts.

  7. Military use of nuclear power can be alarming due to the negative uses that can be applied. One only has to look at its use in World War II and the recent threat of nuclear missiles by North Korea.

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Although scientists have claimed to be on the threshold of creating commercially viable technology using nuclear fusion for many decades, so far, their efforts have not come to fruition, and the only form of nuclear energy currently in commercial use is fission, which involves splitting an atom (most commonly uranium) to release energy. Nuclear energy has the advantage of not relying on fossil fuels and not causing greenhouse gasses. It also is one of the few viable energy sources for space exploration.

The disadvantages outweigh the advantages, however, as events in Chernobyl and more recently Fukushima have shown. Spent nuclear fuel rods can remain dangerous for several hundred thousand years, and thus not only do we need to worry about the possible dangers of nuclear reactors themselves but also about their fuel. Also, the technology required for nuclear reactors and the fuel for them can form the basis for designing and producing nuclear weapons, by either terrorists or rogue nations (such as North Korea). 

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Nuclear energy is a very clean form of energy and does not include use of fossil fuels. Production of nuclear energy does not generate any greenhouse gases (like CO2), unlike other forms of commonly used energy. A nuclear reactor can run for a long time on small quantity of fuel and hence storage and transportation requirements are low. The energy production cost is competitive to other forms of energy.

Nuclear energy generation carries with it the risk of radiation leak as has happened couple of times in past (most notably in Chernobyl, USSR). The storage and disposal of nuclear waste is another concern and is a big security concern. Apart from that, people are against installing nuclear power plants in their neighborhood. 

Hope this helps.

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