How Nuclear Power Works

Pros and Cons of Nuclear Power
This storage facility near the site of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant currently houses nuclear waste.
This storage facility near the site of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant currently houses nuclear waste.
Sergei Supinsky /AFP/Getty Images

What's nuclear power's biggest advantage? It doesn't depend on fossil fuels and isn't affected by fluctuating oil and gas prices. Coal and natural gas power plants emit carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, which contributes to climate change. With nuclear power plants, CO2 emissions are minimal.

According to the Nuclear Energy Institute, the power produced by the world's nuclear plants would normally produce 2 billion metric tons of CO2 per year if they depended on fossil fuels. In fact, a properly functioning nuclear power plant actually releases less radioactivity into the atmosphere than a coal-fired power plant [source: Hvistendahl]. Plus, all this comes with a far lighter fuel requirement. Nuclear fission produces roughly a million times more energy per unit weight than fossil fuel alternatives [source: Helman].

And then there are the negatives. Historically, mining and purifying uranium hasn't been a very clean process. Even transporting nuclear fuel to and from plants poses a contamination risk. And once the fuel is spent, you can't just throw it in the city dump. It's still radioactive and potentially deadly.

On average, a nuclear power plant annually generates 20 metric tons of used nuclear fuel, classified as high-level radioactive waste. When you take into account every nuclear plant on Earth, the combined total climbs to roughly 2,000 metric tons a year [source: NEI]. All of this waste emits radiation and heat, meaning that it will eventually corrode any container that holds it. It can also prove lethal to nearby life forms. As if this weren't bad enough, nuclear power plants produce a great deal of low-level radioactive waste in the form of radiated parts and equipment.

Over time, spent nuclear fuel decays to safe radioactive levels, but this process takes tens of thousands of years. Even low-level radioactive waste requires centuries to reach acceptable levels. Currently, the nuclear industry lets waste cool for years before mixing it with glass and storing it in massive cooled, concrete structures. This waste has to be maintained, monitored and guarded to prevent the materials from falling into the wrong hands. All of these services and added materials cost money -- on top of the high costs required to build a plant.