OK, so we now know briefly how nuclear energy is produced alongside a little background history, but what are the real benefits of such an energy source?
If we look at the largest sources of energy in today’s society we find that they are not evenly distributed over the planet. Over 68% of oil is concentrated in the volatile region of the Middle East and around 67% of gas reserves are concentrated in Russia. This introduces a risk in terms of reliability on the supply of energy for other countries, it also allows these regions to monopolise these resources of energy. Furthermore with the introduction of the Kyoto agreement which demanded that signatories decreased their CO2 emissions in order to reduce global warming, nuclear power plants seemed like an extremely attractive option. Some countries utilised nuclear energy more than others. As we can see from the graph below showing the percentage of electricity produced from nuclear sources from 1980-2004, there is a huge increase in France from 22% to 80%. This is due to the fact that France is very poor in natural fossil fuel sources and therefore a large emphasis is placed on nuclear energy.
Japan is researching methods in which energy in the transportation sector can also be generated by nuclear energy. This involves replacing the hydrocarbons such as gasoline and diesel oil with hydrogen, electricity or synthetic liquid fuels. Using nuclear energy we can produce these energy carriers, or if not we can combine nuclear energy and fossil fuels by a synergistic process. Again this eradicates or at least minimises the emission of carbon dioxide. In order to produce hydrogen, nuclear electricity can be used to electrolyse water, or with the addition of heat can be used in high-temperature electrolysis of steam. Hydrogen energy can be used in various sectors such as fuel cell vehicles and fuel cells to supply electricity to rail trains and marine vessels, also hydrogen can be used in jet engines to propel aircrafts. With regards to electricity, the Japanese government are introducing electric automobiles into the market which allow supply of nuclear energy in the transportation sector through the battery-powered car. However the batteries in these cars are very expensive and therefore production is low. The introduction of a hybrid plug-in car (illustrated below) combined the benefits of nuclear energy and the low costs of using fossil fuels. It was illustrated that on average a hybrid plug-in car could cover 70% of the distance that a Japanese car travels per day running on electricity generated by nuclear energy, and then travels the remaining 30% of the distance using petroleum. This means that around 70% of CO2 emissions resulting from fossil fuel burning can be cut down if these plug-in hybrid cars were mass-produced and introduced into society.
As well as being used in the generation of electricity, nuclear energy was also used in propulsion. The nuclear energy is compacted into vehicles that must travel long distances without refuelling. This is used in naval vessels such as submarines and aircraft carriers. For example in the Cold War there were 100 nuclear powered submarines and a significant number of aircraft carriers in the US fleet. The first aircraft carrier to be deployed was the enterprise used in 1961 and illustrated below. You can see as a tribute the men on board the ship are standing in a formation on the flight deck spelling out Einstein’s formula.
It’s obvious from this that nuclear energy does pose very beneficial for the economy, yet it is still one of the smaller contributors to energy in today’s society. Why is this? Possibly because alongside the benefits it also brings problems and dangers to the table….