Nuclear Energy: An Atomic Topic

Right now, energy is the big question.  A big topic even in the presidential debates, the world’s energy crisis requires the attention of the greatest political leaders and scientists in order to prevent disaster.  Currently, debate rages over depleting sources of fossil fuels, such as oil and coal, and the inability of renewable sources (solar, hydroelectric, etc) to match current energy demands.  Fossil fuels, proven to negatively effect our environment, still comprise a vast majority of our energy source, while renewable sources of energy are not efficient enough to meet large-scale energy needs.  However, there is one source of energy capable of producing large scale energy needs with minimal pollution.  Having been around for decades, this energy source is restricted only by the negative (and unfounded) stereotypes surrounding it.  And if you could not already tell by the title of this article, that power source is nuclear energy.  Currently, we only have the capacity to make use of fission energy, where the nuclei of large atoms are broken up, releasing energy.  While this same process is used in the destructive force of an atomic bomb, nuclear reactors slow down the reaction and control it, allowing for plants that produce over 1,000 megawatts (MW) from just a small amount of nuclear material.  Furthermore, these reactors are far more environmentally friendly than coal and other fossil fuel plants.  In fact, one 1,000 MW nuclear power plant, operating at 90% efficiency for one year, can provide as much energy as 13.7 million barrels of oil.  What are the large white clouds seen billowing from nuclear reactor cooling towers, you ask? That’s 100% water vapor.  The only waste from a nuclear power plant is the left over radioactive material; however, this can be recycled to produce more reactor-grade material, allowing for extended usage of uranium, plutonium, and other radioactive metals.  What really holds back fission reactors is not a lack of material or capability, but the negative ambience they create, after the likes of Chernobyl and Three-Mile Island.  However, both events were freak accidents, and new safety regulations and core-control methods make meltdowns (especially explosions such as Chernobyl) practically impossible to occur.  New technology, such as pebble-bed reactors, prevent even core overheating (like at Three-Mile Island) from occurring and create an extremely stable reactor.  With countries such as France and states such as Vermont receiving over 70% of their power from nuclear energy, there is no reason why we do not follow their example and exploit this fantastic energy source.

However, the real future of nuclear energy lies in the hope of feasible fusion reactors.  Instead of breaking up large atoms, fusion reactors would join together smaller ones (isotopes of hydrogen, obtainable from sea-water) and create larger atoms.  This process releases a grand amount of energy, and is the process that keeps our Sun shining.  While harnessing the Sun’s power may seem a bit too much like science fiction, scientists are well on their way to transforming this dream into a reality.  With government-sponsored labs, such as the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, and worldwide coalitions, such as ITER, fusion energy is on the fast track to feasibility.  Using magnetic fields and high-temperature ceramics, researchers have already managed to create electricity through fusion; now the greatest obstacle is controlling enough energy to create a self-sustaining reactor—like the Sun.  With the first prototype reactor already being built in France, fusion energy may soon be the golden bullet we need to solve our energy crisis.  And before we know it, we may have miniature Suns in every state, powering homes on ocean water.