Deakin Communicating Science 2016

EES 200/101

Electricity out of Thin Atoms

Nuclear energy. Nuclear power plants.

In the media, it’s synonymous with catastrophic failure and cataclysmic destruction.

Nuclear power has long since been used by countries all over the world as an alternative energy source to coal and gas. Coincidentally in terms of variety energy resources, for a third time, Australia has again been blessed (or, cursed) by one of the largest naturally occurring uranium ore deposits in the world.

But when we consider all the renewable energy sources I’ve discussed previously, the question for nuclear power is, “why do we need it?”

And that is actually a decent question; when we have totally green, clean energy at our technological disposal, such as hydro, solar, geothermal, wave and wind, what is really the point of still investing in nuclear energy as a means of feeding our means of energy consumption?

Well to begin, nuclear energy is a no-carbon source of power. It generates its electricity using steam and turbines. A radioactive element, usually Uranium, releases radioactive particles that collide with the molecules in water, or Heavy Water in older reactors.

A carbon offset is still desirable, but a good secondary point to consider would be the population density and population growth. It isn’t as much of “why do we need it, but why would we need it? A growing population with currently only the coast as the most liveable areas, multiple hydroelectric generators and solar panel farms would more than likely sustain us for now. But in preparation for future energy consumption per person, and the number of people living per km2, solar farms will eventually become a problem after they take up too much land space.

Unfortunately, thousands of acres of panel-bearing land can’t just be lifted up and moved when the increasing population pushes residential housing further rural. Even when they are built, the generators must be close to the area using its electricity or else the area will not receive the best energy supply (loss of voltage occurs over longer distances).

That is why a nuclear power plant would be an ideal investment into Australia’s future. Currently, France utilises nuclear energy to contribute 75% of its electricity demand (58% uranium ore fuel, 17% recycled fuel). Not to mention there are thousands of hectares of land for mining taken up, more land taken up by refineries, more land taken up by factories, and more land taken up by the companies that burn it to produce the electricity.

That’s a lot of land.

Similarly, nuclear power plants also take up a lot of land; the key difference being the power output and waste generated by the coal-fired counterpart. To power a 1000MWe (Mega-Watt electrical) reactor for 1.5 years, it would require 1 freight train of between 89 to 100 tonne coal carriages every day. Over 350,000 tonnes of ash would spit out of the coal-fire factory, as well as an additional 4 million tonnes of carbon dioxides and other greenhouse gases. In comparison, a family of 4, over a period of 20 years, would generate enough nuclear waste to completely fill a 35-millimeter film canister…

35mmfilm
Image source:
http://petapixel.com/assets/uploads/2013/01/filmdeveloping-211.jpg
… Which is about yea big. Such a comparison is not quite as direct as it should be but the general idea is shown.

Also including the economic state; less coal being burned for power means more coal to export, which in turn means cheaper steel, buildings, infrastructure, cars, houses, and so on. Australia as a whole would benefit so much more if the switch was made a reality.

As population and population density increases, nuclear will be the way to go from large-scale renewables. It’s time we stepped up our game as one of the largest exporters of Uranium ore and started thinking of our own energy consumption, and how we could lessen the impact of our collective carbon footprint.

References:

http://www.nucleartourist.com/basics/reasons1.htm

http://www.world-nuclear.org/information-library/country-profiles/countries-a-f/france.aspx

http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/france-loses-enthusiasm-for-nuclear-power/

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This entry was posted on May 30, 2016 by in Burwood - Friday 11am.

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