Nuclear Power


The principle by which nuclear power stations produce electricity is not very different from that of fossil-fuel power stations, in that both heat water into pressurised steam to turn a turbine which drives a generator. The difference is that a nuclear system uses the energy released by ‘fission’ (the splitting of an atom in two) to produce the required heat. Nuclear fission is a natural process and the fuel that is used in a nuclear plant, uranium, constantly undergoes fission at a very slow rate. Uranium is commonly found on Earth and is a good element to choose for inducing and managing fission.

So if nuclear reaction is natural, and its use for power generation saves harmful fossil fuel emissions, it seems an ideal system for meeting the world’s enormous energy requirements. But unfortunately we have all heard of nuclear accidents like “Windscale”, “Three Mile Island”, “Chernobyl” and, more recently, “Fukushima Daiichi” in Japan, and we know that when nuclear plants go wrong the radiation emitted can be catastrophic for the environment. Another problem is that uranium is not only used in nuclear power production, but also in producing nuclear bombs, so “nuclear” becomes a dirty word in people’s minds – we wouldn’t want anything “nuclear” near where we live, thank you!

And yet nuclear power, although controversial, produces approximately 17% of the world's electricity. There are over 400 nuclear power plants throughout the world. Of those, about 100 are in the USA. Many countries depend on nuclear power for their electricity supply, some more than others. For example; France is reputed to generate approximately 75% of its requirements from nuclear plants and the USA about 15%.

We are told by some scientists that the world cannot meet its energy needs except by nuclear power; others stress the part to be played by techniques to reduce demand and by green energy sources like wind, wave, tide and solar energy. A recent (2013) study carried out by the Tyndall Centre at Manchester University in England has been interpreted by Friends of the Earth as supporting their policy of opposing nuclear power. Friends of the Earth focuses on renewable energy sources in the UK, like off-shore wind, and claim that these will be adequate to meet the likely increase in demand for power. They agree that coal and gas have worse health impacts than nuclear power, and accept that the Tyndall Report assesses the health risks from renewables as broadly comparable to those from nuclear power. The storage and management of nuclear waste is an unresolved issue: although, according to the Tyndall Report, the building of new nuclear power stations in the UK would not add significantly to the quantity of waste to be stored, but it would increase the overall radioactivity of the waste requiring to be handled safely. As a result of their interpretation of the Tyndall Report, Friends of the Earth continue to oppose government subsidies for nuclear power, while the Report shows that claims that nuclear power is cheaper than renewable energy are unlikely to be accurate. By contrast the UK government’s current position is that: “Nuclear power is low carbon, affordable, dependable, safe and capable of increasing the diversity of energy supply. New nuclear power stations will help the UK reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2050 and secure its energy supply.” (Department of Energy and Climate Change, August 2013)

The worldwide picture is rather contradictory: China is currently building 28 nuclear power reactors, and the USA expects five new nuclear plants to enter service by 2020. But after the Fukushima Daiichi accident, Germany has decided to close all its nuclear reactors by 2022, and Italy has banned nuclear power. Switzerland decided in 2011 to keep its 5 existing nuclear reactors, but not to replace them at the end of their lifespan, and to abandon plans to build new ones. Worldwide, the International Energy Agency has halved its estimate of new nuclear generating power likely to come on stream by 2035.
Whether governments can “keep the lights on” with or without nuclear power, remains to be seen.

Pictures of nuclear power plants: Goesgen, Beznau, Leibstadt (Switzerland).

nuclear-plant-m82.jpg (75579 Byte) nuclear power plant Goesgen cooling-tower-0z7.jpg (65511 Byte) nuclear power plant Goesgen beznau-nuclear-plant.jpg (87385 Byte) nuclear power plant Beznau nuclear-power-plant.jpg (112852 Byte) nuclear power plant Beznau
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Daeniken, Power Plant Goesgen, Nuclear Plant Nuclear Power Plant, Goesgen Nuclear Power, Goesgen
cooling-tower-ub4.jpg (118122 Byte) nuclear power plant Leibstadt cooling-tower-01.jpg (59467 Byte) Goesgen  nuclear power plant Goesgen, Cooling Tower Goesgen, Nuclear Power Plant
 turbine-power.jpg (132319 Byte) nuclear power plant Leibstadt  Nuclear Plant, Exhibition nuclear-power-9iu7.jpg (153397 Byte) nuclear-power-nv5.jpg (106523 Byte) nuclear power plant Leibstadt