At the Heart of the Atom

Did Physicists Recognize the Military Uses of Fission?

What are the strengths and weaknesses of nuclear power?

Electric power is produced primarily by plants using hydrocarbon fuels—coal, oil, and natural gas. These are usually called fossil fuels and are no longer being created; when they are used up these resources are gone. Nuclear power plants can reduce our reliance on such fuels. Uranium, however, is also a fossil fuel. Coal mining has significant environmental costs. Oil is used mostly for transportation. Natural gas is relatively clean and is used mostly for home and industrial heating. Another advantage of nuclear power is the reduction in greenhouse gases, primarily carbon dioxide.

One major disadvantage of nuclear power is the cost of the plant and the extremely long time scale associated with obtaining approval and constructing the facility. Costs are difficult to calculate precisely, but nuclear power and off-shore wind farms are the two most expensive methods of generating electricity, while oil from the Middle East is the cheapest. As a result of these uncertainties, factors other than costs are increasingly important.

Other disadvantages include the production of nuclear waste that poses long-term dangers to people due to its intense radioactivity. No long-term storage plans have been approved, although underground storage in salt deposits is the most likely method.


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