Nov 2, 2017 in Research

Introduction

Nuclear technology is one of the greatest discoveries of the past century. It has brought many opportunities for the peaceful application along with the devastating power in the hands of the military. Nuclear power became the salvation for the most countries in terms of producing energy in large-scale meaning. Nuclear power plants became the source of the almost unlimited electricity with long-term perspectives. However, nuclear power happened to be a rather dangerous thing even for peaceful purposes – Ukrainian power plant disaster in Chernobyl in 1986, Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania, and recent events in Japan showed that nuclear power plants could be very dangerous for the environment and people around if maintained inappropriately or if some natural disaster happens.

Nevertheless, nuclear power plants produce about 16% of the world’s electricity (Figure 2). Nuclear technology is being applied in a variety of areas such as medicine, various industries, commercial use, etc. Large ships like aircraft carriers, submarines, etc. exploit nuclear technology as the main power source. Nuclear technology is used in the most devastating weapons of the humankind – nuclear bombs. Health care industry utilizes radiation for the good of people – various radiation treatments are able to deal with cancer. However, advanced nuclear power plants are the most common places where nuclear technology is being applied in full (MEC850 Selected Readings).

The report is aimed to explore the issue of advanced nuclear power plants. In order to provide a comprehensive view, it is organized in the following way: description of advanced nuclear power plants includes such sections as Evolution of Nuclear technology and Nuclear Power Plants, Current Status of Nuclear Power Technology, and Application of Nuclear Power Plants; then, the environmental impacts of nuclear power plants is being discussed and nuclear power technology is compared with competing energy resources; finally, recommendations and conclusion section provides the appropriate recommendations for the further study and summarizes the report.

Description of Advanced Nuclear Power Plants

Application of Nuclear Power Plants

The main power source is electricity today on the planet. It can be produced in different ways: solar, wind, water, and other energies can be transformed into electricity. However, nuclear power plants have certain substantial advantages of their application. In general, all electric power is needed according to the three phases of load: base load – it is present all the time (day/night) and can be considered as about two-thirds of all used electricity; intermediate load – it is the load above the previous one that is usually present most of the daytime and at beginning of the evenings; and peak load – it occurs at the hours when most of electricity consumers (computers, air conditioners, etc.) work at the same time or in special conditions such as very hot or cold weather and people start to use more air conditioners or electric heaters. Nuclear power plants can provide substantial support in cases of electricity usage overloads (MEC850 Selected Readings).

The major cost of every nuclear power plant is the cost of its construction. The cost of the nuclear power plant fuels is substantially lower compared to the price that fossil power plants pay for the fossil fuels. Therefore, the main purpose of the nuclear power plants is to assure basic load electricity service. Due to the high cost of the nuclear power plants, their use for intermediate load is not acceptable. It makes fossil fuel steam plants be rather suitable for intermediate load service providing. In case nuclear power plants are not possible to build, fossil fuel steam plants can be used for base load service as well.

Then, fossil fuel steam plants are not the cheapest facilities to construct either. It is the reason why they are not used for peak load servicing. Therefore, in order to assure peak load services, the internal combustion turbines are used. They are considerably inexpensive however, consume rather expensive fuel, and thus, not optimal for the other purposes. The problems of the peak load can be solved using solar electricity. However, nuclear power plants are still needed to provide cheap and constant services assuring basic load.

Speaking of solar energy, specialists of energetic area consider it as cheap, unlimited source of energy that however, can be available during the daytime only (MEC850 Selected Readings). Thus, it can compete with fossil fuel plants for being better alternative for the intermediate load services. Solar power plants could provide all services necessary however, the current level of their efficiency is rather low. Therefore, the above-mentioned power plants are still used to provide intermediate and peak load services. The future developments of solar energy engineering will possibly provide the necessary level of efficiency and it may solve the issues with environment that current level of technological development has  (MEC850 Selected Readings).

Advantages and Disadvantages of Nuclear Power Plants

Nuclear power plants have significant meaning for the energy industry of many countries. However, they have disadvantages along with obvious advantages. Thus, the advantages of nuclear power plants are as follows:

  • Nuclear power station can produce the amount of electricity comparable with the amount produced by fossil fueled power plants
  • However, nuclear power plants do not have to burn fossil fuels and thus, they do not pollute the environment with damaging gases
  • Nuclear power production process is much cleaner and environment friendly than other processes. It means that use of nuclear power could protect environment from the greenhouse effect and disturbing climate changes
  • Nuclear power plants allow the developed countries (UK, USA, etc.) to avoid being dependent from gas and oil that have to be imported from the Middle East – not the most stable and safe world’s part
  • There are successful examples (France, for example) of the countries that rely on nuclear power as the major source of electricity (up to 90%) and have no issues with it
  • Nuclear reactors have a great plus – they can be rather compact and thus, could be used to power ships, submarines, and other vessels. Therefore, if it were possible to use nuclear reactors in commercial ships, it would decrease pollution and oil use substantially.

The disadvantages are also present. Otherwise, we would live in the nuclear era with overall use of nuclear reactors everywhere. Thus, the disadvantages are as follows:

  • Despite the obvious positive side of the nuclear power, it is still a rather controversial way of producing electricity. The main concern is radioactivity of the fuel nuclear power reactors use
  • The accidents happen with nuclear stations and it have already caused great damage to the environment and people. The previously-mentioned accidents at Chernobyl (Ukraine), Three Miles Island (USA), Fukushima (Japan) took a lot of lives and did serious damage to the environment for the next 50-100 years
  • The problem of wastes storage after fuel use is rather serious as well. The wastes are still radioactive and they have to be stored very carefully in the underground facilities
  • Wastes storing and monitoring processes are rather expensive considering the period of remaining radioactivity
  • Despite the obvious advantages of compact nuclear reactors in the Navy, for example, ships and submarines can be dangerous for the environment. Any radioactive leak can cause a lot of damage to the marine life
  • Living nearby the stations is a rather stressful situation for people. They fear leaks and possibility of accidents
  • Finally, the development of the nuclear programs in the developing countries with unstable political situation concerns the rest of the world because of the possibility that nuclear weapons can be developed as well (MEC850 Selected Readings).

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Evolution of Nuclear Technology and Nuclear Power Plants

From the early days of the nuclear age to the most recent review conference of the Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1995 at which the Treaty was extended indefinitely, efforts to curb the spread of nuclear weapons evolved and took a variety of forms: regional and global, comprehensive and limited, unilateral and multilateral, violent and peaceful, failed and successful. The following five major themes named after their inherent key characteristics were identified the international option, the commercial option, the moral option, the multilateral option, and the legal option. The five were embedded in the evolution of nuclear technology, strategy and nonproliferation policy, the latter culminating in the success of the ‘legal option’, the signature of the NPT, in 1968.

Current Status of Nuclear Power Technology

Nowadays, nuclear technology is worldwide spread. It is used in military and civil projects. It is needed because of the variety of reasons: volatile fossil fuel prices, issues with the secureness of energy supplies because of the lack of stability in some regions of the world, and problems global climate change. The newer, more advanced, safer, and production technologies are being developed in the nuclear area. These advanced nuclear reactors are created to produce more electricity with fewer efforts spent for the maintaining and managing the plants; to manage nuclear wastes; and have simpler and easier process of further improvement of the existing plants.

Environmental Impact of Nuclear Power Plant

Comparison between Competing Energy Resources

The complexity of nuclear power plants is staggering, making electricity production costs in existing plants equal to or greater than that in fossil-fueled plants. At present, the capital investment of a new nuclear power plant is two-to several-fold higher than a pulverized-coal-fired or natural-gas-fired combined cycle plant, including the capital investment in emission control equipment that fossil-fueled power plants require. In addition, fossil fuel is relatively cheap at present, ranging from $2 to $5 per MBtu, so that fuel cost is not a deterrent to its use. In some countries, notably France and Japan, which lack fossil fuel resources, energy security arguments appear to predominate over safety concerns or economic factors, so that nuclear power plants continue to supply an increasing fraction of the electricity demand (Ogino et al. p. 395). In the future, the situation may change. The global fossil energy resources are finite. The current consumption rate shows that if consumption increases with population and economic growth-fluid fuels (oil and gas) will be depleted within a century.

While coal resources may last longer, the environmental effects of coal use, notably the greenhouse effect, militate against wider use of coal (Rothwell p. 48). Renewable energy may play an increasing role in marginal energy use, but it is doubtful that renewable energy will replace large-scale centralized fossil fueled or nuclear power plants supplying the base load for urban-industrial areas. Nuclear energy resources are far more abundant than fossil fuel resources. It is estimated that high-grade uranium ores could provide the present mix of reactors for about 50 years, but utilization of lower-grade ores (with concomitant increase of refined uranium fuel price) would last for many centuries. Utilization of thorium ores and fast breeder reactors could extend nuclear energy resources to millennial Thus, it is possible that worldwide nuclear power plants will again win public favor and become economically competitive with other energy sources (Rothwell p. 50).

The only possible way to make nuclear power plants become popular in the world again is as follows:

  • Fossil fuels will become rare and very costly
  • Government will adopt regulations forbidding electricity production by fossil fuels plants because of the environmental concerns
  • Renewable sources of energy will not be able to assure the satisfaction of the electricity demand that increases
  • Governments will wish to become totally independent from the fossil fuels shipments from other countries
  • Government will implement new programs of nuclear weapons that will utilize the products of nuclear power plants activities (like plutonium).

Of course, it is beyond any doubts that any risks of radiation accident must be minimized.

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Nevertheless, the future of nuclear power plants is very much uncertain. In part, the uncertainty stems from the public's perception that nuclear power plants are inherently unsafe, notwithstanding the contrary records and statistics (Whitfield et al. p. 429). The other factor is economics. Although governments directly or indirectly subsidized nuclear power plants by funding research, development, and the infrastructure upon which the plants were founded, the production cost of electricity in existing plants is either equal to or greater than that in fossil-fueled plants. New plants may become more expensive than existing ones because of the increased capital investment needed for added safety features (Whitfield et al. p. 430). Production costs may also increase because a larger number of technical personnel will be required to ensure safe operation of the new plant and because of the imbedded cost of safe disposal of spent fuel and decommissioning the plant after reaching retirement.

Recommendations & Conclusion

The nuclear era started after the discovery of the nuclear fission in the 20th century. Now, nuclear power plants provide the numankind with megawatts of electricity, do no pollute air and environment, and are the most perspective achievable sources of the energy. However, nuclear power is rather controversial still because of the devastating accidents of the past, radioactive nature of the main fuel, and the overall psychological concern of the public.

Therefore, it is very important to develop such nuclear technologies that would consider all these issues and make the resulting technology safe in all meanings. The new types of reactors should be developed (fusion, for example) to make the process of nuclear reactors’ creation less complex and expensive. It is also very important to make technology be environment friendly and make people believe in it. Cheap and simple reactors that are capable of producing tons of energy are the dreams of many futurists and they can become the reality with the appropriate technological development of science. 

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