Nuclear Energy: the Pros and Cons to Replace Fossil Fuels in Our Energy Mix

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Nuclear energy is a reliable and sustainable source of energy that has the ability to provide copious amounts of energy without producing considerable amounts of greenhouse gases. Despite nuclear power only contributing a small amount to the world's energy mix, it has the properties to contribute much more. With the current urgency to prevent global warming, nuclear energy is a necessity, as it is a low-carbon energy source. However, unlike other low-carbon sources it is much more reliable and can match the efficiency of fossil fuels. The low usage of nuclear energy shows that there are currently some constraints in place, but these problems occur within various other energy sources. Therefore the purpose of this essay is to analyze nuclear energy pros and cons as a way to replace fossil fuels.


Since being first used for energy in 1951, nuclear energy has continued to present a solution for the global desire to reduce carbon emissions while continuing to support the global energy demand. Nuclear energy creates power through the splitting of atoms which heat up water and turn it into steam. This process takes place in a nuclear reactor and the steam is then used to turn a generator (Nuclear Energy Institute, Undates). A nuclear reactor was first used to generate electricity on december 20, 1951, at the Experimental Breeder Reactor-1 experimental station in Idaho. It initially only produced 100kW of energy, which later peaked at 200kW (Argonne, 2020). Since then nuclear reactors have continually been developed to generate as much energy as Japan’s Kashiwazaki-Kariwa Nuclear Power Plant, which has a net capacity of 7,965MW (Prospero, 2021). Nuclear energy is not only a large, reliable energy source but it is also a clean energy source that produces no carbon emissions. These attributes are what make it the perfect power source to reduce the impact of global warming, while still meeting the global energy demand. Ultimately reducing and potentially eliminating the need for fossil fuels worldwide.

Pros and cons of Nuclear Energy in contrast to Fossil Fuels

The biggest problem with fossil fuels is the incredibly negative impacts they have on the environment. Copious amounts of greenhouse gases are released into the atmosphere when fossil fuels are burnt. Greenhouse gases trap heat in the earth’s atmosphere by absorbing and emitting heat energy in all different directions, which keeps the earth's surface warm (Royal Society, 2014). Naturally occurring greenhouse gases are a good thing, as they keep the planet at 15 degrees celsius, which keeps the earth habitable. However, when an excess of greenhouse gases are released into the atmosphere this causes climate change. Since the Industrial revolution (1740-1860) the atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide have significantly increased. For example, the average carbon dioxide concentration measured at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii has risen from 316 parts per million (ppm) in 1959 to over 411 ppm in 2019 (Royal Society, 2014). This massive increase over the last 60 years has mainly been caused by human activities that rely on the burning of fossil fuels to take place, such as, transport, electricity generation, for industrial and commercial usage. From “data collected by Bloomberg from the NOAA, the global temperature average has increased by 0.82 degrees Celsius when compared to the 20th century average. The rate of increase, however, increased to roughly 0.18 degrees Celsius each decade since 1981, signaling a quickening of both warming surface and ocean temperatures across the globe”(World Economic Forum, 2021, para. 2). Although this temperature increase only seems to be small, it has drastic effects on the weather event and patterns. Such as, rising sea levels, melting sea ice, intensified storms, increased heat waves and wildfires across the world. These events have threatened habitats, food sources and life as we know it, and this is due to the greenhouse gas emissions produced from burning fossil fuels.

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The urgency to reduce the amount of greenhouse gases countries produce has been highlighted to governing bodies through the Kyoto protocol and Paris agreement. The Kyoto Protocol, of 1997, mandated that developed countries needed to reduce their carbon emissions by about 5% less than the levels of carbon in 1990 (Council Foreign Relations, 2021). However, the treaty didn’t force developing countries to take action, and these countries included China and India who are major sources of carbon emissions (Council Foreign Relations, 2021). Similarly, the Paris Agreement 2015, required all countries to create emissions-reduction pledges (Council Foreign Relations, 2021). Each country's governments set targets, with the goals of stopping the global average temperature from rising 2°C above pre industrial levels and actively trying to keep it below 1.5°C (Council Foreign Relations, 2021). These treaties have led countries to look into a range of alternative and sustainable energy sources to reduce their carbon emissions. Nuclear energy has become a popular energy source in reducing dependency on fossil fuels, with over 30 countries using nuclear power to contribute to their energy demands. This is because nuclear power plants do not release any greenhouse gases during operation or produce any air pollution, which means it is a sustainable energy source. There is only one byproduct produced during nuclear energy production. This byproduct is excess steam, however it is not harmful to the environment as it can easily be recycled into clean water vapour (Inspire, 2020). However, fossil fuels are used when making the actual power plants, meaning that the life cycle of a nuclear power plant is not completely sustainable. Nonetheless, over its entire lifetime, nuclear power plants produce a similar amount of carbon dioxide emissions per unit of electricity as wind energy, and 13 of the emissions per unit of electricity when compared with solar energies carbon emissions(Nuclear World Association, Undated). This highlights that, despite some greenhouse gases being emitted during production of a nuclear power plant, the overall carbon emission is not nearly as detrimental as that of fossil fuels. Nuclears limited contribution to global warming makes it a suitable source to reduce our reliability on fossil fuels.

Another reason that nuclear energy would be able to replace fossil fuels is due to it being an incredibly efficient and reliable energy source. Unlike other renewable energy sources, nuclear power plants are able to run at full capacity for the majority of the time. For example, in 2017 nuclear power plants worked at full capacity for 92% of the time. Whereas natural gas plants could only operate at full capacity for 55% of the time (Sciencing 2019). This means that nuclear power plants are almost always providing power, which makes it an ideal source for the baseload electricity for the grid. This reliability could also allow fossil fuels to be phased out as nuclear energy offers a constant source of energy. Nuclear energy is not only a reliable source of energy, but a high source of energy. For example, one uranium fuel pellet yields the same amount of energy as one ton of coal. However, this pellet is significantly smaller, weighing about 0.6 grams (Sciencing, 2019). This means that a lot more power could be generated from a much smaller amount. It is also estimated that the amount of energy released during nuclear fission is 10 million times greater than that released from burning an atom of fossil fuel (Inspire, 2020). Further highlighting that nuclear power is much more efficient and much more powerful than fossil fuels

Another reason that nuclear energy may be able to replace fossil fuels is due to the economical benefits of nuclear energy. Like all renewable energy sources, the initial start up cost of nuclear energy is very high. It is estimated the cost of a new 1,100 MW nuclear power plant will be between $6 billion and $9 billion. This is notably very expensive and much higher than the industry had initially predicted prices to be (Schlissel and Biewald, 2008). Although these initial prices don’t seem to be an economical advantage, these capital costs make up 60% of nuclear power plants' levelised costs of electricity.(Team, 2017) This highlights that fuel costs are actually not that expensive and are relatively cheap to run. These high initial costs also mean that the fuel costs are low, which has given nuclear energy an advantage against gas-fired and coal power plants. This advantage is also because nuclear power generates a million times more power than a fossil fuel plant. Resulting in the need for less uranium and therefore further reducing the fuel costs, while still remaining on par with fossil fuel power plants. Combining the reliability, high capacity and relatively low fuel costs of nuclear energy further pushes the idea that nuclear energy may be able to completely replace fossil fuels from the world's energy equation.

However, despite nuclear energy being an ideal energy source many people have reservations about nuclear power stations. This is due to the risk of a nuclear meltdown. A nuclear meltdown can happen when the heat from the nuclear reactor is greater than the amount of heat that is being transferred out via the cooling system (Energy Sage, 2021). This increase in heat can cause the system to exceed its melting point. (Energy Sage, 2021) When this happens, it can cause hot radioactive vapors to escape, which can lead to the power plant to combust and completely meltdown (Energy Sage, 2021). When these meltdowns occur they are incredibly detrimental to the environment, as there are large amounts of radioactive materials being released. This radioactive fallout can lead to radiation poisoning of humans and animals in surrounding areas. Radiation poisoning can damage your stomach, intestines, blood vessels and bone marrow (WebMD, 2022). This damage makes the human body more susceptible to disease and therefore increases the chance of death. There have been two major incidents regarding nuclear energy, Chernobyl (1986) and Fukushima Daiichi (2011). 46 people have died during and since the Chernobyl accident, and there were no casualties as a result of the Fukushima Daiichi meltdown. Although these were tragic incidents the deaths caused from fossil fuels each year are significantly higher. It is estimated that the air pollution from the byproducts of fossil fuels causes 7 million deaths each year, making fossil fuels the deadliest source of energy (Wilkerson, 2016) . It is also known that the main impacts of these nuclear accidents weren’t from radiation, but instead were from misconceptions and fears about radiation. (World Nuclear Association, 2021)


The evidence provided highlights that there are many benefits to using nuclear power and these benefits make it a suitable energy source to replace fossil fuels in our global energy mix. Nonetheless, the evidence only compares nuclear energy to fossil fuels and does not provide insight to different renewable energy sources, which may also be able to replace fossil fuels. However, most other renewable energy resources are unreliable as they are dependent on certain weather conditions and therefore can’t provide a constant flow of energy. Nuclear waste is also another issue, which hasn’t been mentioned within this essay. Although the volume of waste and the cost of disposal is not very high, it is the public disapproval of this waste that continues to prevent the creation of newer nuclear plants. Overall, as climate change is one of the biggest challenges the earth faces, the fact that nuclear energy doesn’t release any carbon dioxide makes it a vital energy source to increase our usage of.


In conclusion the majority of nuclear energy's attributes present it as an ideal energy source to replace the current dependency on fossil fuels. Its ability to produce electricity without releasing any carbon dioxide makes it an appropriate energy source to turn to, in order to achieve the agreements made by the Kyoto Protocol and Paris Agreements. Its high reliability and high energy capacity make it the almost perfect energy source for the global energy mix. However, high capital costs, potential nuclear hazards and limit how much electricity is produced from nuclear power. In theory nuclear energy does have the potential to replace fossil fuels, however, in reality there is still a long way to go before nuclear energy can completely phase out fossil fuels.


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