Splitting atoms: making sense of nuclear power

Understanding the basics of an alternative to fossil fuels

Could nuclear energy replace fossil fuels?

If you didn’t get the message from grade five science class onwards: fossil fuels are the bane of humanity.

Fossil fuels let us power the majority of our cars and give us hand cream and Ziplock bags—but they’re killing the planet. Burning fossil fuels releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere in massive, unnatural amounts. These carbon emissions trap heat in our atmosphere, causing the Earth to warm and contributing to the climate crisis in a big way.

If fossil fuels are so horrible for our planet, what replacements could be used to curtail global warming? One potential answer is nuclear power.

Many of us have heard of nuclear power but aren’t sure what it is. Consider this your beginner’s guide to understanding some key facets of the nuclear energy conversation.

Nuclear energy comes from splitting atoms—most commonly uranium—in a nuclear reactor through a process called fission.

Nuclear reactors harness the energy produced through fission by using it to heat water to turn turbines and create electricity. To quantify the amount of energy produced in nuclear fission, one pound of uranium contains as much energy as three million pounds of coal.

Importantly, nuclear energy doesn’t directly produce carbon emissions—though it should be noted that uranium mining and the construction of nuclear power plants require lots of energy.

This lack of carbon dioxide makes nuclear energy sound like a promising energy alternative, but it’s not a perfect solution to our current reliance on fossil fuels. Before you draw any conclusions about nuclear energy, you should do some reading and heed the perspectives of experts. To get you started, here are some points about nuclear energy to consider:

We already use nuclear energy more than you might think

Nuclear energy can feel like something that’s far off in the future, but it’s not. In fact, nuclear power generation accounted for approximately 15 per cent of Canada's electricity in 2018. There are six nuclear power stations in Canada, one of which is the largest operating nuclear power plant in the world.

Uranium is a non-renewable resource

It’s important to consider that, unlike solar or wind generated power, nuclear power is not sustained by a renewable resource. In other words, nuclear power won’t last forever, and when we run out of uranium, we’ll likely have to find another energy source.

Mining uranium can contaminate water and soil

Nuclear power requires uranium, which must be mined out of the ground through a process that has the potential to contaminate agricultural soil and water. In order to mine uranium, we must be very careful—otherwise we risk harming vital farming practices and drinking water.

Hazardous nuclear waste requires storage

After uranium has reacted in nuclear fission, it becomes radioactive and has to be disposed of safely. It takes thousands of years until the radioactive waste produced in nuclear energy is no longer a health hazard. If we rely more heavily on nuclear energy in the future, developments must be made in how we’re going to store increased quantities of its dangerous by-products.

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