The Future of Nuclear Energy

By Abigail Meyers

The use of nuclear energy has been debated for decades, with its advantages and disadvantages both thoroughly examined and analyzed. Although scholarly opinions on the subject differ, we are still in need of restrictions and advancements that would prevent tragedies, such as that in Japan. However, it is clear that nuclear energy will be an imperative element of the future.


Nuclear energy can be defined as the energy released from the nucleus of an atom as a result of fusion or fission. Nuclear fusion is the process in which two nuclei are combined into one. Fission is the opposite: a nucleus splits into multiple nuclei. The first nuclear technology was developed prior to World War II for military reasons due to its immense strength. Thus, was primarily used in the creation of defense weaponry. The first nuclear reactor, Chicago Pile-1, was developed at the University of Chicago in late 1942. After the war, the versatility of nuclear energy was expanded, and scientists utilized it more peacefully. Today, more than 30 countries use this technology to make aspects of life more efficient, such as electricity, space exploration, and agriculture. However, there is an uncertainty that comes along with such power.


Although some nuclear engineers and scientists have been hesitant to consider it a viable option, the use of nuclear energy in electricity could be crucial in combating climate change. As global electricity consumption increases, carbon emissions continue to build in the atmosphere. It was previously believed that nuclear energy would be a cheaper option as the cost to run it is low, but still, development is costly. 


Between 2002 and 2008, the price of nuclear technology rose from $2 billion to $9 billion per unit. Although expensive, a shift towards nuclear energy would have substantial impacts on air pollution and carbon emissions. Assistant professor of Nuclear Engineering at the University of California, Berkeley, Rachel Slaybaugh, stated “Even without considering climate change, just look at the public health impact of air pollution. I just can’t come to any answer that isn’t nuclear.” Slaybaugh sees this as a potential solution to the health risks caused by pollution.


The use of nuclear technology has also paved the way for advancements in space exploration. The amount of power needed for space travel is enormous and hardly compares to the power demonstrated by nuclear energy. Previous methods of generating energy have provided enough energy to launch, but cannot last as long as is necessary. 


Past research has indicated that in agriculture, the application of nuclear energy has been beneficial as well. The energy has ensured that crops are both safe and have maximum productivity Insects and pests often destroy entire fields of crops. One method, called the sterile insect technique, utilizes this technology to sterilize male insects, allowing them to remain unharmed while preventing them from destroying crops. Additionally, radiation can be used to track the course of food within animals and determine its nutritional value. In this way, nuclear technology has increased livestock productivity, tripling it in some cases, and prevented disease from spreading. Lastly, by identifying potential contaminants, nuclear techniques have improved food safety in over 50 countries. Overall, nuclear energy has had a positive outcome on agriculture and has ensured that we have a consistent supply of safe food to survive.


Although it could play a role in decarbonization, nuclear energy still has consequences. Nuclear waste remains radioactive for thousands of years after disposal and is extremely high-energy, creating the potential for large-scale explosions However, there have been efforts to dispose of nuclear waste safely. Finland, for example, has decided to put the material inside copper canisters and place them in a cave of granite, to ensure that the material is stored safely. The multiple barriers prevent energy from being released. 


Another negative aspect of nuclear technology is that a significant rise in cancer development has been observed in workers exposed to nuclear energy. This is due to the radiation emitted from the radioactive material. An accident involving nuclear energy could be deadly, such as was shown by the Fukushima, Japan accident in 2011. Following a tsunami provoked by an earthquake, three reactors melted and released radioactive material into the surrounding atmosphere. The question that must now be addressed is: how will this form of energy fit into our future?