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Do Now #43: Nuclear Energy

| October 10, 2012 | 28 Comments
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Do Now

What do you think about expanding the use of nuclear energy in California? Would you support the development of a new nuclear power plant in our state?

Introduction

Energy sources fit into three main buckets–fossil fuels (coal, oil and natural gas), renewable (e.g. wind, solar, hydroelectric, geothermal, etc.) and nuclear. In order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions produced by fossil fuels, there is movement toward increasing energy production from alternative sources. So, what about nuclear?

Nuclear energy is derived from the splitting of uranium atoms. In a nuclear reaction, a particle called a neutron hits the nucleus of a uranium atom. This reaction, called fission, breaks the nucleus in two, releasing more neutrons and a lot of heat. This heat can be used to create steam which turns a turbine to generate electricity. The neutrons collide with more uranium atoms, producing a chain reaction, so the process continues. Nuclear fission is very efficient, producing a lot more energy per unit weight than fossil fuel alternatives, with far fewer greenhouse emissions.

A lot of the debate around nuclear stems from the fact that nuclear power relies on naturally radioactive uranium for fuel and generates radioactive by-products. Finding places to store radioactive waste has proven controversial. And, although commercial nuclear power plants are designed to high safety specifications, when a catastrophe happens, such as last year’s earthquake in Japan and the resulting accident at the Fukushima-Daiichi plant, there is possibility of radioactive materials being released.

Currently, there are 31 states with at least one commercial nuclear reactor and nuclear energy provides about 20% of U.S. electricity. That is more than all renewable energy sources combined. Earlier this year, the Obama administration approved construction of two new reactors in Georgia and two in South Carolina–the first to be approved in more than 30 years.

What do you think? Should we depend more on this source of energy in the future or not?

Resource

KQED QUEST segment What’s Next for Nuclear?
President Obama says the United States needs new nuclear reactors, to meet the country’s energy demands and counter climate change. But can nuclear power be produced more safely and affordably? A scientist at the University of California, Berkeley, is working to do just that.


To respond to the Do Now, you can comment below or tweet your response. Be sure to begin your tweet with @KQEDedspace and end it with #DoNow43

For more info on how to use Twitter, click here.


More Resources

NPR Tell Me More: Is Nuclear Energy the Best Alternative?

Find other resources about nuclear energy at PBS LearningMedia.

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Category: 6 -12 Science, Do Now, Do Now: Science, Science

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About the Author ()

Andrea is the Science Education Manager for KQED. She joined KQED in 2007 to coordinate education and outreach for the public television series Jean-Michel Cousteau: Ocean Adventures. Between working on Ocean Adventures and joining the QUEST team, she developed the educational resources for the 4-hour documentary Saving the Bay. Andrea graduated from UC Berkeley with a B.A. in Environmental Science and earned her M.A. in Teaching and Multiple Subject Teaching Credential from the University of San Francisco. Before arriving at KQED, she taught, developed, and managed marine science and environmental education programs in Aspen, Catalina Island and the Bay Area.
  • krystof

    How much was KQED paid to publish this piece of propaganda? Shameful. I will no longer be donating and will be encouraging others to refrain as well.

    • Geoff

      How was this piece propaganda? It listed some facts, some arguments for and against, and asked us what we thought. What do you want them to write?

      I will keep donating.

  • krystof

    How much was KQED paid to publish this piece of propaganda? Shameful. I will no longer be donating and will be encouraging others to refrain as well.

    • Geoff

      How was this piece propaganda? It listed some facts, some arguments for and against, and asked us what we thought. What do you want them to write?

      I will keep donating.

  • http://education.kqed.org/edspace/2012/09/29/do-now-41-grade-the-president/ Jennifer Ramos

    I don’t support a new Nuclear Plant. I don’t really think there is a purpose.I believe that it would be a waste of time.Sure they help with energy but that’s not the point.It is poisoning the air that we use with all the things it has to burn to make energy. Pollution is going to be the end of us if we don’t do a problem.The Nuclear Plants can become destructive after or during any natural disasters .An example is the Earthquake and Flood that occurred in Japan that caused the Nuclear Reactor to explode.Causing people to smell the Toxic gasses as the Flood and Earthquake happened.I would use less energy if it meant not having to put another Nuclear plant in.

  • http://education.kqed.org/edspace/2012/09/29/do-now-41-grade-the-president/ Jennifer Ramos

    I don’t support a new Nuclear Plant. I don’t really think there is a purpose.I believe that it would be a waste of time.Sure they help with energy but that’s not the point.It is poisoning the air that we use with all the things it has to burn to make energy. Pollution is going to be the end of us if we don’t do a problem.The Nuclear Plants can become destructive after or during any natural disasters .An example is the Earthquake and Flood that occurred in Japan that caused the Nuclear Reactor to explode.Causing people to smell the Toxic gasses as the Flood and Earthquake happened.I would use less energy if it meant not having to put another Nuclear plant in.

  • http://www.hiroshimasyndrome.com Leslie Corrice

    I’ve long held the view that nuclear and other renewables are the way to go…some thirty years, actually. With the dark spector of global climate change hanging ominously in the offing, I advocate building 100 nukes in America over the next decade to effectively eliminate the burning of coal. Misconceptions lay at the foundation of all nuclear energy criticisms, such as confusion between reactors and bombs and the conviction there is no safe level of radiation exposure. Popular Press reports coming out of Japan, fraught with groundless innuendo, do a disservice to the population of the world. Japan’s true disaster is the aftermath of the 3/11/11 tsunamis, but Fukushima is being used to deflect attention away from the country’s lack of tsunami recovery. Fukushima is being blamed for everything bad in Japan, which is a clear case of rhetorical bigotry. All things nuclear have been severely exaggerated since WWII. From my personla, albeit rational perspective, I fully support expanding nuclear power generation in my state.

  • http://www.hiroshimasyndrome.com Leslie Corrice

    I’ve long held the view that nuclear and other renewables are the way to go…some thirty years, actually. With the dark spector of global climate change hanging ominously in the offing, I advocate building 100 nukes in America over the next decade to effectively eliminate the burning of coal. Misconceptions lay at the foundation of all nuclear energy criticisms, such as confusion between reactors and bombs and the conviction there is no safe level of radiation exposure. Popular Press reports coming out of Japan, fraught with groundless innuendo, do a disservice to the population of the world. Japan’s true disaster is the aftermath of the 3/11/11 tsunamis, but Fukushima is being used to deflect attention away from the country’s lack of tsunami recovery. Fukushima is being blamed for everything bad in Japan, which is a clear case of rhetorical bigotry. All things nuclear have been severely exaggerated since WWII. From my personla, albeit rational perspective, I fully support expanding nuclear power generation in my state.

  • Brycen Anderson

    I do support the creating of new Nuclear power plants. The reason is because I think it will help us lower the amount of poisonous gas from the air. That will only happen if we advance in our technology towards new nuclear reactors. If not I don’t think it will make much of a difference in the future. If we start now on this technology I believe we will succeed in or attempt to lower the amount of fossil fuels being pushed into the air. Also i think we need to be more careful about how the way these plants are operated to insure that there wont be any mouth functions with it that would lead to a disaster.

  • Brycen Anderson

    I do support the creating of new Nuclear power plants. The reason is because I think it will help us lower the amount of poisonous gas from the air. That will only happen if we advance in our technology towards new nuclear reactors. If not I don’t think it will make much of a difference in the future. If we start now on this technology I believe we will succeed in or attempt to lower the amount of fossil fuels being pushed into the air. Also i think we need to be more careful about how the way these plants are operated to insure that there wont be any mouth functions with it that would lead to a disaster.

  • http://www.kqed.org/donow Cameron Vafai

    I’m very much against anything nuclear i think it’s waste disposal and it causes a lot of issues and it causes a lot of problems it also wastes energy.

  • http://www.kqed.org/donow Cameron Vafai

    I’m very much against anything nuclear i think it’s waste disposal and it causes a lot of issues and it causes a lot of problems it also wastes energy.

  • Shealtiel Mulder

    I think that the need for another Nuclear Plant is definatly justified, however it shouldn’t be built if it does pose a health threat to the people, land, or enviroment.

  • Shealtiel Mulder

    I think that the need for another Nuclear Plant is definatly justified, however it shouldn’t be built if it does pose a health threat to the people, land, or enviroment.

  • Talesa

    @kqededspace i really dont care for it and thinks its irrelavant it’s alot more thing obama and smart scientist should be worring about rather than expanding a nuclear energy in california we have enough evergy as it is and its really seems pointless ! #kqeddonow

  • Talesa

    @kqededspace i really dont care for it and thinks its irrelavant it’s alot more thing obama and smart scientist should be worring about rather than expanding a nuclear energy in california we have enough evergy as it is and its really seems pointless ! #kqeddonow

  • Brandon Cogburn

    I don’t support a nuclear plant in California. We could use that money for something else that would benefit us better, and what happens if the plant melts down or explodes. Then we have to pay for clean up

  • Brandon Cogburn

    I don’t support a nuclear plant in California. We could use that money for something else that would benefit us better, and what happens if the plant melts down or explodes. Then we have to pay for clean up

  • Aedan

    I think that building another nuclear power plant would be worth the risk. Because it is more efficient than other energy sources and has less greenhouse gasses. However I think it should be in a lowly populated area I case a natural disaster were to occur.

  • Aedan

    I think that building another nuclear power plant would be worth the risk. Because it is more efficient than other energy sources and has less greenhouse gasses. However I think it should be in a lowly populated area I case a natural disaster were to occur.

  • Megan B

    I believe that nuclear energy is more efficient and environmentally friendly than other types of energy. Although it is dangerous, a nuclear power plant in California would benefit us greatly.

  • Megan B

    I believe that nuclear energy is more efficient and environmentally friendly than other types of energy. Although it is dangerous, a nuclear power plant in California would benefit us greatly.

  • Jasmin A.

    I believe that Nuclear energy can be beneficial and harmful and several different ways. The great thing about nuclear energy is that it produces energy more efficiently than the burning of fossil fuels without the emission of greenhouse gases. Another upside about nuclear energy is that it costs less then fossil fuels. Although nuclear energy sounds like a really great thing to have, it is also very harmful to our environment and humans. These plants produce a large amount of radioactive waste and radiation which can be potentially harmful to us. If this radioactive waste leaks into our environment it can, destroys human cells, causes cancer, and leads to birth defects down the road. This radiation can spread through our food, air and especially our water sources. Despite the fact that nuclear plants cost a lot of money to build, they are also very dangerous. For example the accident that happened at Fukushima, Japan’s nuclear power plant after the earthquake and tsunami they had. The most important part of the reactor, the cooling system, failed after the quake causing the plant to explode due to overheating leaking tons of radiation in Japan. All in all, I believe that there should not be anymore nuclear energy unless nuclear engineers, that create these reactors, find a way to make it very safe and make it so it would never have faults in the system. There also needs to be a proper area to dispose of the radioactive nuclear waste to make it so that it won’t affect the environment.

  • Jasmin A.

    I believe that Nuclear energy can be beneficial and harmful and several different ways. The great thing about nuclear energy is that it produces energy more efficiently than the burning of fossil fuels without the emission of greenhouse gases. Another upside about nuclear energy is that it costs less then fossil fuels. Although nuclear energy sounds like a really great thing to have, it is also very harmful to our environment and humans. These plants produce a large amount of radioactive waste and radiation which can be potentially harmful to us. If this radioactive waste leaks into our environment it can, destroys human cells, causes cancer, and leads to birth defects down the road. This radiation can spread through our food, air and especially our water sources. Despite the fact that nuclear plants cost a lot of money to build, they are also very dangerous. For example the accident that happened at Fukushima, Japan’s nuclear power plant after the earthquake and tsunami they had. The most important part of the reactor, the cooling system, failed after the quake causing the plant to explode due to overheating leaking tons of radiation in Japan. All in all, I believe that there should not be anymore nuclear energy unless nuclear engineers, that create these reactors, find a way to make it very safe and make it so it would never have faults in the system. There also needs to be a proper area to dispose of the radioactive nuclear waste to make it so that it won’t affect the environment.

  • http://no Eric T.

    I believe that we should have more nuclear reactors, they have higher safety precautions than anywhere, and the one in Japan that was unstable has killed no worker from radiation. It is safer on the environment and it is overall more efficient in producing energy in comparison to fossil fuels and green sources of energy. Even though there will be an event that a reactor might be unstable, all energy can cause problems for the environment, for instance the BP Oil spill.

  • http://no Eric T.

    I believe that we should have more nuclear reactors, they have higher safety precautions than anywhere, and the one in Japan that was unstable has killed no worker from radiation. It is safer on the environment and it is overall more efficient in producing energy in comparison to fossil fuels and green sources of energy. Even though there will be an event that a reactor might be unstable, all energy can cause problems for the environment, for instance the BP Oil spill.

  • http://Donow#43 Daniel

    No way! Too sketchy. Keep doing the R & D but don’t build until we have a better design

  • http://Donow#43 Daniel

    No way! Too sketchy. Keep doing the R & D but don’t build until we have a better design