Nuclear Fission Energy




This topic briefly describes the complex topic of nuclear fission energy. Nuclear fission (division) of certain large unstable atomic nuclei results in usable energy. Nuclear fission also occurs in a nuclear bomb, but for nuclear energy the fission process is controlled and takes place in a nuclear fission reactor (Cattenom is pictured). There are various types of nuclear fission reactors. See references for details.

Nuclear fission energy in its current form has many negative features and some positive features. Future nuclear fission reactors potentially will be much more attractive than current nuclear fission reactors. 

It is important to note that nuclear fission energy is NOT nuclear FUSION energy. Nuclear fusion energy has none of the major problems of nuclear fission energy. Fusion energy is in the research stage. If it becomes commercial, fusion energy could largely satisfy the worldwide electricity demand for the indefinite future, safely. 


Negative features of current nuclear fission energy 

Negative features include: 1. Dangerous nuclear weapons proliferation increasing the chance of nuclear war if reactors are used to produce weapons; 2. Problematic nuclear waste disposal for very long-lived radioactive elements (e.g. Yucca Mountain); 3. Serious nuclear-reactor accidents; 4. Potential nuclear terrorism; 5. Large capital costs for new reactors (6 - 10 billion $US in 2009) with long construction times; 6. Federal guarantees needed to supplement the Price Anderson Act in case of catastrophic accident; and 7. Harmful health effects of uranium mining on local populations (Navajo).


Positive features of current nuclear fission energy 

1. Little carbon emission, and so does not enhance global warming; 2. Reduces oil dependency and oil politics; 3. Energy at industrial scale.

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Future fission reactors 

"4th-Generation" reactors, currently in the research stage (e.g. the Integral Fast Integral Breeder Reactor), potentially have few of the major problems of the current reactors. In particular, advanced reactor design involves "eating" nuclear waste from current fission reactors, thus strongly reducing nuclear waste and proliferation problems.

Modular fission reactors


Political aspects of fission nuclear reactors

In the US, the right-wing tends to favor nuclear power, and there are pro-nuclear lobbying groups (e.g. the Nuclear Energy Institute). Anti-nuclear groups favor renewable non-nuclear energies.

It is noteworthy that the well-known scientist James Hansen strongly favors the promotion of nuclear energy of the advanced 4th generation type (in addition to renewable energies and energy conservation). Since nuclear fission does not enhance global warming, it is "back on the table".


HERE are excerpts from a letter from four very influential climate scientists on 11/03/13, reading as follows:

Kerry Emanuel originally shared:
To those influencing environmental policy but opposed to nuclear power:

As climate and energy scientists concerned with global climate change, we are writing to urge you to advocate the development and deployment of safer nuclear energy systems. We appreciate your organization’s concern about global warming, and your advocacy of renewable energy. But continued opposition to nuclear power threatens humanity’s ability to avoid dangerous climate change.

We call on your organization to support the development and deployment of safer nuclear power systems as a practical means of addressing the climate change problem. Global demand for energy is growing rapidly and must continue to grow to provide the needs of developing economies. At the same time, the need to sharply reduce greenhouse gas emissions is becoming ever clearer. We can only increase energy supply while simultaneously reducing greenhouse gas emissions if new power plants turn away from using the atmosphere as a waste dump...

With the planet warming and carbon dioxide emissions rising faster than ever, we cannot afford to turn away from any technology that has the potential to displace a large fraction of our carbon emissions. Much has changed since the 1970s. The time has come for a fresh approach to nuclear power in the 21st century.

We ask you and your organization to demonstrate its real concern about risks from climate damage by calling for the development and deployment of advanced nuclear energy.


Dr. Ken Caldeira, Senior Scientist, Department of Global Ecology, Carnegie Institution
Dr. Kerry Emanuel, Atmospheric Scientist, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Dr. James Hansen, Climate Scientist, Columbia University Earth Institute
Dr. Tom Wigley, Climate Scientist, University of Adelaide and the National Center for Atmospheric Research


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Japan suffered a huge earthquake and tsunami in 2011. The tsunami caused nuclear accidents, primarily the level 7+ meltdowns at three reactors in the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant complex, and the associated evacuation zones affecting hundreds of thousands of residents.

HERE is a news interview of Rachel Maddow with Dr. Edwin Lyman from the Union of Concerned Scientists discussing nuclear reactor safety and this incident:


Engineering aspects of fission reactors

HERE is a NYT article that includes the graphic below illustrating a reactor with it's containment system:

Here is a picture of the nuclear fuel cycle process:

The nuclear fuel cycle begins when uranium is mined, enriched, and manufactured into nuclear fuel, (1) which is delivered to a nuclear power plant. After usage in the power plant, the spent fuel is delivered to a reprocessing plant (2) or to a final repository (3) for geological disposition. In reprocessing 95% of spent fuel can be recycled to be returned to usage in a power plant (4).

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Energy use projection

Here are graphs of historical and projected world energy use by region and by energy source to 2040, including nuclear. Source: International Energy Outlook 2016, EIA.

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From the Capital Cost Estimates for Utilities (EIA) for 2016, page 7 it is seen that the capital costs ($/kW) are highest for advanced nuclear* among all energy sources.

*The Advanced Nuclear (“AN”) Facility consists of two nominally rated 1,117 MW Westinghouse AP1000 nuclear power units built at a brownfield (existing nuclear facility) site. 

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References (Wikipedia)


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Last edit 17Jan18



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