Here are five fundamental aspects of this technology that you need to consider.
1. Clean Energy
The EU has recently said that nuclear energy is a clean and green energy source, but it is not. It doesn’t release CO2 except during the building of the plant and the mining of the resources. However, it can’t be called “clean” because it hurts the environment around it.
Only the energy released by fission reactions is used in the plants that are running right now. Even though many experiments are going on, there are still no fusion reactors that can give off more energy than they take in. But all fission reactors, no matter how big or small, are based on a reaction that makes fission fragments, unstable chemical elements lighter than the uranium from which they came.
Let’s think of the nucleus of an atom of a heavy element (like uranium, thorium, or plutonium) as a charged firecracker that will explode with just a tap. It gets a neutron from the tap. By bursting, splinters are made that interact with what is around them and turn their energy into heat. This heat can produce steam and electricity, like in a thermal power plant.
2. Nuclear Waste
What should we do with the radioactive waste?
We can only put them somewhere, but the problem is figuring out where and for how long because they are bad for the environment and especially for people.
Once you find a site, you can’t be sure that water that melts things and carries them around won’t come or that someone won’t stick their nose in it in the next hundred or thousand years. No permanent solutions have been found yet.
Most of the waste made so far is in temporary dumps. Even if the reactors worked perfectly, we would only have an advantage for a few decades, but they would leave a legacy for centuries or millennia.
3. The Safest
There are no machines that are always safe or that never break. At Chernobyl, the problem wasn’t that the reactor didn’t work well. Instead, they did an unplanned experiment because they thought they could check what was going on by hand. Who can make a reactor that can’t go wrong? Nobody.
Who can make a machine that doesn’t break? Nobody. I’ve heard there is a 1 in 100,000 chance of an accident. This is not true, as Chernobyl, Fukushima, Three Mile Island, and Windscale in England show, and the size of the damage in case of an accident is much bigger than the size of the reactor.
Those who shut down on their own and keep the damage inside are considered “safe,” but the problem of the reactor remains as a reminder of how stupid people can be is not solved. At Three Mile Island, the reactor was taken apart. It took over twenty years to figure out what to do with the leftovers, which are now in a temporary waste dump. For the future.
4. Fourth Generation
The difference between generations is more of a story. Reactors are different based on the fissile material that is put in the core (the fuel), the moderator (water, heavy water, or graphite) that slows down the neutrons and makes it more likely that a chain reaction will happen, or the coolant that collects the heat that is made: gas, light, heavy water, boiling water, under pressure, liquid metals (lead or sodium), or molten salts.
The fourth generation won’t be ready for ten years. Instead of water, fluids that can work at higher and lower temperatures will be used as coolants. The goal of studying helium, molten salt, and liquid metal (sodium and lead) in refrigerated reactors are to use waste to make fuel. A lot of people are interested in “fast” neutron reactors that are meant to burn trash.
But in the end, the most crucial thing about fourth-generation reactors is that they don’t exist. These are different kinds of projects where it might be possible to use some safety measures to make them better. But we always talk about fission, and none of the problems we discussed go away, except that fast reactors have more control and safety issues.
5. Nuclear Fusion
The fusion is the other “hope.” Many projects are going on in different parts of the world. The biggest one is called Iter. The reactor is being built in Cadarache, France, with help from the EU, USA, Russia, China, Japan, India, and South Korea.
On the other hand, fusion happens between the lightest and densest elements on the periodic table. Two forms of hydrogen, called deuterium and tritium, can get close, but the atoms’ electrically charged nuclei don’t want to get close. With “force,” we can start a physical process: the isotopes lose their electrons and combine into plasma, which must be heated to tens of millions of degrees and held in place by magnetic fields.
In the end, we’ve already said, the energy given off is less than the energy taken in. I’m in favor of research to figure out how to control plasma, but not if it takes money away from more important things or if it’s used to sell fusion as a real solution to the problem, giving people the idea that it’s a clean and endless source of energy.
Even if a way was found to make more energy than was taken in, the reaction is based on deuterium (about one atom of deuterium for every 6400 atoms of hydrogen in nature) and tritium, which is not found in nature. Even if it can only be found in small amounts, it is unstable and will be gone in a few years. For a fusion machine to work, it would need a chain of things to make. One way to get it is to split the nucleus of an isotope of lithium, a slightly heavier element, into helium and tritium. Fission to get tritium would be used in the fusion along with deuterium.
It’s not normal. Deuterium is much more common than lithium, which is used for many things (from electric car batteries to smartphone batteries). And the conditions in lithium mines aren’t that different from those in uranium mines. Once the fusion has happened, neutrons are also released, and whatever is in the machine takes them in. Even with these radioactive materials, dismantling and storing them would be a problem for those who come after us.
We need to ask questions about how the economy works, forcing governments to treat energy like a good that can be bought and sold. And since there is a significant need for it, it is still worth it to make it. But energy is essential and must come from stable sources like the sun, tides, wind, and geothermal heat. We need to focus on stabilizing the amount of energy we use and cutting back on how much we use because any other mythical solution would lead to the depletion of the planet’s reservoir, which would affect everyone’s living conditions and those of the future generations.