Electricity can be generated from uranium: nuclear energy. In addition, 10 to 100 times less net CO2 is released than with energy generation from fossil fuels. That is about the same as with electricity production from wind, water, and sun. But opinions about nuclear energy differ greatly.
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Proponents regard nuclear energy as safe, sustainable, and necessary to combat climate change. Opponents consider the technology not necessary and fundamentally unsafe: because of the radioactive waste and the risk of serious accidents, such as in Fukushima after the Japan earthquake.
Advantages and disadvantages of nuclear energy
- Virtually no CO2 and other greenhouse gases are released during the generation of nuclear energy.
- Uranium is relatively cheap as a raw material.
- For nuclear energy, we are less dependent on politically unstable regions than on the use of oil and gas.
- Uranium is found all over the world in rocks, soil, and seawater.
- The biggest disadvantage of nuclear energy is the radioactive waste from a plant, but the waste from uranium mining and the demolition waste after the closure of a nuclear plant is also radioactive. Radioactive radiation is a major health risk. Highly active radioactive waste continues to emit radiation for tens of thousands of years, posing a risk to thousands of generations after ours. There is currently no good definitive storage for this.
- The chance of a serious accident is small, but the possible consequences are great. This mainly concerns long-term adverse effects due to increased radiation levels.
- The construction of a nuclear power plant is very expensive (billions of euros), as is demolition (dismantling).
- Nuclear power plants and factories handling nuclear waste pose a risk of misuse. They can be made suitable for the production of nuclear weapons.
Nuclear energy in the Netherlands
About six percent of the electricity we use in the Netherlands is generated by a nuclear power plant (2014 figures). The only working nuclear power plant in the Netherlands is located in Borssele (Zeeland). In addition, the Netherlands also imports electricity (including from France, Belgium, and Germany) that is partly generated with nuclear energy. In the Netherlands, research with nuclear energy is also taking place at six locations (nuclear research). The best-known research center is at ECN in Petten.
What is Nuclear Energy?
Nuclear energy is the energy released by splitting atomic nuclei of the ore uranium. Uranium has a heavy, unstable atomic nucleus and divides itself into two or lighter nuclei during nuclear fission. During this fission, a large amount of energy is released, which triggers other uranium atoms to fission nuclear again. That is called a chain reaction. In a nuclear reactor, a nuclear power plant keeps this chain reaction under control. In a nuclear power plant, tens of thousands of so-called uranium oxide fuel rods lie in a reactor bath filled with water. Nuclear fission takes place in the rods, while water flows past. The energy released during nuclear fission is heat. The water absorbs that heat, reaches a temperature of hundreds of degrees Celsius and then turns into steam. This steam drives turbines that generate electricity.
The stock of uranium
Uranium is not renewable, so gone = gone, but the stock is large. The supply of cheaply extracted uranium is sufficient to produce (with the latest generation of nuclear reactors) the same amount of electricity every year for about 100 years as is currently being used worldwide.
Radioactivity and health
If a living creature receives radioactive radiation, it can cause serious health problems. Radioactivity increases the risk of leukemia (blood cancer), hereditary conditions, and abnormalities in babies exposed to radiation in the womb. High-level waste continues to emit radiation for tens of thousands of years, posing a responsibility and risk to thousands of generations after ours.
Future of nuclear energy
Fourth-generation power stations
Today’s nuclear power plants belong to the ‘third generation’ power plants. Research is being conducted worldwide into a ‘fourth generation’. In doing so, essentially new concepts would increase reactor safety and reduce the quantity and life of radioactive waste. For example, the so-called transmutation of radioactive waste would convert long-lived radioactive material into short-lived material. The development of this technique will probably take decades to come.
In addition to nuclear fission, there is another technique that could potentially generate energy in the future by changing the nucleus of atoms: nuclear fusion. The chemical reactions in the sun are the best-known example of nuclear fusion. During nuclear fusion, the nuclei of two substances (deuterium and tritium) fuse together. This creates helium (another substance), a nuclear particle (neutron), and a lot of energy. The raw material deuterium is widely available. Tritium is made in the plant.