The advent of nuclear power serves as a dividing line between distant history and the modern age. Its atomic symbol exudes the authority of science. Accounting for more than 11 percent of world energy production, it is unlikely that this medium will fall into disuse. At the same time, the fission process represents a danger for many who view it as a hazard to the earth and to humanity. Weighing the nuclear fission pros and cons is a constant challenge.
Nuclear Fission Pros
Efficient for Electricity
Fission is a process whereby the nuclei of atoms (in this case uranium) are split, releasing large amounts of energy. This dynamism heats water which produces steam that, in turn, rotates specially designed turbines. The spinning of the turbines generates electricity. This is a much more feasible method than, say, nuclear fusion.
The aim here is not to divide nuclei but to combine them, i.e. two positively-charged nuclei. Because both have positive charges, they will naturally repel without enormous pressure forcing their fusion and subsequent energy production.
This explains why virtually all the working reactors use fission rather than fusion. Though fusion yields less nuclear waste at the back end, the front end of power generation favors the process of nuclear fission.
It Is Pollution-Free
The output of nuclear fission is steam, not smoke. A properly-working reactor emits no particulates, gases or fumes. Power plants running on coal or fossil fuels cannot make this boast. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the nitrogen oxides emitted by the burning of fossil fuels pose a threat to human health, and to the ecology of the earth. Among the nuclear fission pros and cons, this speaks in its favor.
In fact, the fission of one kilogram of uranium-235 releases nearly a million times more energy than the ignition of one kilogram of coal. Not only does fission produce much less atmospheric contamination, it generates much more usable energy. In an era when large populations suffer from asthma, COPD and other respiratory ailments, the goal of purer and cleaner air is better served by nuclear fission.
No Role in Climate Change
Fission manufactures power without contributing to global warming or climate change. In the array of nuclear fission pros and cons, this is a big plus. The United Nations (UN) sustainable development agencies issue dire warnings regarding climate change effects: rising sea levels; more frequent and violent storm activity; droughts and flooding. As nuclear fission is not responsible for these ominous events, its use—even increased use—may reduce the need for the fossil fuels that are culprits in global warming.
While the UN and international environmental advocates assert the advantages of wind and solar power, they also recognize the immediacy and availability of energy generated by nuclear fission. Through its organ, the International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN makes strides against global warming by ensuring the safety and integrity of nuclear facilities.
A Space-Age Energy Source
Of all the nuclear fission pros and cons, a future in outer space is the most unique. Whereas fossil fuels are earth-based—and wind and solar are atmosphere-dependent—fission provides greater opportunity to power human penetration of the cosmos.
Looking ahead to a return to the moon (and future contact with Mars), the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is relying on fission to develop a power breeding technology that can function in the severe conditions of other celestial bodies. Russia and other states have long utilized fission reactions to power reconnaissance satellites, weather monitoring craft and other scientific instruments.
Nuclear Fission Cons
A Health Hazard
There is a reason that nuclear plant personnel must wear protective clothing: radiation. Radioactive contamination is lethal to living organisms. This is why so many safeguards—e.g. concrete shield walls and remote handling robotics technology—exist for employee protection. This protocol is known as ALARA, meaning to keep radiation “as low as reasonably achievable”. It works fairly well most of the time. There are, however, times when nuclear workers suffer ill effects.
There is some evidence to suggest, for example, that administrators at the Savannah River Site, a weapons facility in South Carolina, may have exposed workers to a carcinogenic radioactive metal used in nuclear reactions. While litigation is ongoing, the story suggests that safeguards are not always foolproof.
Nuclear Waste Harms the Environment
A damning indictment among the nuclear fission pros and cons relates to waste and disposal. Spent uranium fuel is known as high-level waste. This fuel is no longer efficacious in generating electricity but only short periods of exposure can be fatal. Accordingly, spent fuel rods are placed in deep pools lined with steel and concrete, and kept there for approximately five to 10 years before moved to dry storage. They can remain in dry casks for up to 40 years.
Yet even a half-century does not completely remove the radioactive potential of high-level waste, which can remain dangerous for millennia. In truth, storage is still a bone of contention after decades of debate and argument. Meanwhile, improper management and care can lead to leakage and ecological disaster.
Accidents Can Have Disastrous Consequences
From Three-Mile Island in the 1970s to Chernobyl in the 1980s to –most recently—the disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear facility in Japan, the destructive aftermath of accidents is very real. Even if nobody dies from direct radiation exposure as an immediate outcome, cancer grows more likely and previously fertile soil nearby becomes barren and lifeless. It is worth noting that the event in Japan was the result of tsunami impact more than human failure (though power executives resigned under pressure).
When all is said and done, the nuclear fission pros and cons will each be compelling when isolated from one another. Key to deciding on the need for fission is balancing these assets and liabilities against one another. Only then will we know if nuclear fission is worth it.