Updated: Jan 24
by Maxwell Matheny
The following story was written by a student on the staff of The Jaguar Times as part of Hilliard Bradley High School’s Journalism Production course.
Since its discovery in the 1940s, Nuclear Energy has been a significant source of energy for multiple countries. Its minimal environmental impact, high energy production, and a significant amount of uranium has made it very attractive for investment. Justin Planck, a junior Bradley student, mentions that, “It [referring to nuclear plants] doesn’t take up a whole bunch of space” while talking to me about nuclear energy. In fact, when compared to renewables, solar takes up 75 times more land to generate the same amount of electricity.
However, since the 1989 Chernobyl disaster, nuclear energy has seen very low levels of investment. Later in 2011, a massive earthquake caused a nuclear meltdown in Fukushima, Japan leading to many nuclear plant closures. The world became wary of nuclear energy and many countries began placing multiple regulatory measures on the plants to prevent such a crisis from ever happening again. These measures made the start-up prices of plants to skyrocket, discouraging investment into nuclear energy. In 2021, there is only one country that has a majority of energy supply coming from nuclear. France, since the 1980s fossil fuel crisis, decided to go all in on nuclear energy.
Today, it is the only country in the European single market to be unconcerned by power outages. In fact, energy.gov stated that one uranium pellet produces the same amount of energy as 120 gallons of oil. In addition, as scientists continue to research more potential for nuclear energy, it continues to become safer, cheaper and much more productive.
For context, there are three different generations of nuclear reactors. Each generation introduces new and unique concepts that improve the systems from the generation before. Most nuclear reactors are generation II which was said to improve safety measures from generation I and increased fuel efficiency. Both the Fukushima plant and Chernobyl’s fourth plant were of this generation. The most recent generation III reactors improved fuel technology and increased thermal capacity. It has also significantly improved safety systems to reduce the risk of a disaster like what happened in Fukushima. This latest generation also standardized plant designs aimed at lowering the cost of plants. Now scientists are conducting research into possible fourth generation reactors.
These new reactors are aimed at becoming more sustainable, increasing heat resistance by using new coolant methods, as well as producing energy in greater amounts. One concept that was included in this generation was the use of thorium in reactors instead of the standard uranium. Thorium is 3.3x more abundant in nature than uranium, however it can not be used in nuclear energy unless paired with fissile materials such as recycled plutonium. The biggest benefit to this is the high volumes of solid waste and low volumes of radioactive waste. In addition, scientists have discovered methods to recycle much of the expended elements which would supplement resource supplies and make the industry more sustainable.
However, thorium can also be used to produce uranium-233 which has much of the same benefits as thorium nuclear power. The World Nuclear Association also found that uranium-233 produced the same amount of energy as uranium-235. A reactor type identified as capable of using these are Molten-Salt Reactors (MSRs). MSR systems will decrease radioactive waste as well as increase temperature threshold, making the system safer.
Nuclear energy has many ingrained advantages to it and chemistry teacher Mrs. Forquer said, “As long as it’s well controlled, which I think we’ve learned so much from prior catastrophes that I think that we can, and I think that it’s a great source of energy,”. Since those events it has become much safer and more sustainable. Despite these advantages nuclear energy has not seen a great amount of growth and remains