How nuclear power works?
Nuclear fission is a radioactive process by which the nucleus of an atom splits into smaller particles, producing neutrons and photons that release large amounts of heat energy. Nuclear reactors enable controlled, continuous nuclear fission of uranium atoms, and sit within a steel pressure vessel. The heat generated produces steam, driving turbines (as in coal or gas-fired plants) which produce electricity.
The fuel rods are made using enriched uranium. Uranium is a natural silvery-white metallic element found in all rock, soil and water, and forty times more abundant than silver, and mined in countries such as Australia and Canada.
Used fuel from power stations is very hot and radioactive, but can be stored and cooled safely in water for up to 50 years. After about five years, it is typically transported to dry, ventilated concrete containers.
1% of the used fuel is usually recycled immediately, and 96% can be kept for recycling later on. About 3% must be stored separately, in stable rock formations deep underground. The radioactivity of the material gradually diminishes, so that after 40 years, it has one thousandth of its original radioactivity, but nevertheless will remain radioactive for thousands of years.
Benefits vs. Challenges
Nuclear power poses a number of risks, but offers benefits over other energy sources. We need to ensure nuclear power in Europe remains viable, safe and sustainable so that we can all enjoy the benefits.
Low, stable electricity prices
Since fuel represents 9% of the cost of operating a nuclear power plant, compared with 77% of coal-fired plant or 93% of gas, and there is plentiful supply from stable countries, nuclear is an excellent means to secure low and predictable electricity prices. Low electricity prices benefit everyone from households to businesses and energy-intensive industry as well as public services such as hospitals and schools, by freeing up cash for other activities.
Close to Zero Carbon Emissions
Nuclear power produces 29 tonnes of CO2 per gigawatt hour compared with 499 tonnes at gas power stations. Wind and solar power meanwhile produce electricity only intermittently and have to be backed up by gas or coal plants, significantly increasing CO2 emissions. Nuclear power is the best solution to the scale up of clean energy, and is supported by influential environmental thinkers such as George Monbiot. If all the world’s coal-fired power stations were replaced with nuclear plant, 4.7 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions would be avoided each year.
Nuclear power stations can operate at a high level of efficiency for as long as 60 years, compared to 40 years for coal-fired plant, 30 for gas and 25 for wind and solar plant.
No Air Pollution
Unlike gas, oil, coal and biomass-fired power stations, nuclear plants do not produce any local air pollution.
Particulates matter from burning fossil fuels is responsible for 1 million deaths a year worldwide, according to the WHO. Meanwhile sulphur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide also have major health impacts and can cause acid rain.
Efficient use of Land
Nuclear power stations require 430 acres of land to produce 26 terrawatt hours of electricity. With solar farms, 130,000 acres would be required, and onshore wind farms 250,000 acres. Europe is one of the most densely populated regions of the world so nuclear is the right option to power the continent.
Security of Supply
Unlike gas and oil, nuclear power stations do not depend on countries that are undemocratic or unstable. Uranium, which is the primary nuclear fuel, is available in large quantities from countries such as Australia or Canada, also making the price more stable. There is over a hundred years’ worth of known and economically recoverable reserves of uranium worldwide.
Paving the Way for Electric Vehicles
Nuclear power provides the only credible alternative to powering Europe’s cars and vehicles with imported oil or gas. Electric vehicles are increasingly able to compete with gasoline or diesel cars. Intermittent generation from renewables could not produce the same amounts of electricity reliably.
Nuclear is Safe
Nuclear power stations have an outstanding record of safety in Europe, with no serious accidents since the first was built in the UK in 1956.
The key challenge is protecting the public from radiation leaks from the reactors and spent fuel stores.
In both cases, ‘Defence in depth’ strategies minimize the risk of radiation leaks in case of human error, while regulators monitor the sites and work with other agencies to develop contingency plans in case of serious leaks.
After Fukushima, the Western European Nuclear Regulator’s Association began ‘stress tests’ of all European reactors, to ensure the plants’ resilience in the case of extreme natural events such as earthquakes or flooding.
We know we can rely on the quality of European installations from previous experience, but new reactor designs and plant construction must be carried out to the highest standards, so that there is zero risk to the health and well-being of European citizens and the countryside. The same applies to the storage of used fuel, which should be recycled or stored safely away from human habitation.
Europe needs its own supply chain and R&D programme to ensure safety, security and the retention of best practice in European corporate memory. The very large amounts of money needed to finance new nuclear power stations – which ultimately come from European citizens – must be invested in ways that support European jobs and businesses.