Nuclear power at core of energy efficiency challenge

nuclear plant, nuclear, energy efficiency, fusionNuclear power ignites considerable debate, especially in France where nuclear power plants account for over 75% of domestic electricity production. However, Europeans know little about the stakes of this technology. A survey conducted by the website touteleurope.fr in 2007 revealed that only 57% of respondents correctly answered questions about technical issues related to nuclear power. How is electricity generated through nuclear power? What are the strengths and weaknesses of nuclear power plants, especially in terms of energy efficiency?

Electricity generation concept common to any power plant

A nuclear power plant basically functions just like any other power station using another energy source. The ultimate goal is to heat vast amounts of water and turn it into steam, which is then put under pressure to drive a turbine whose movement generates electricity. Uranium enriched in isotopes is “split”, which is referred to as nuclear fission, and used as a fuel to heat water. In other words, uranium atoms are “broken” until they generate heat, which will turn water into steam.

Hot water is then processed through a parallel cooling system before it is released into its original stream. This is the reason why nuclear power stations are always located near major rivers. These so-called pressurized water reactors (PWR) are the most widespread technology worldwide. Current research aims at developing “nuclear fusion” reactors, replicating reactions taking place on the solar surface.

Unmatched power but poor efficiency

A little known fact about nuclear energy is that it is not energy efficient. The average yield of a nuclear plant is an estimated 30%, that is to say that 30% of the energy generated by uranium fission ends up being converted into electricity. The rest is lost or used up during the different steps of the transformation process of potential energy. Thus, one of the challenges facing the next generation of nuclear plants will be to make the energy chain more efficient; all things being equal, Areva’s EPR is expected to be 35% more energy efficient while using 17% less fuel.

The energy efficiency of a nuclear plant (from the educational website jecomprendsenfin.fr)

nuclear plant, nuclear, energy efficiency, fusion

Unparalleled power does not go without risks

Despite energy losses, nuclear plants currently remain the most powerful electricity generating system, while not emitting CO2. In environmental terms, this is their best advantage over traditional thermal plants. Since the raw material is still relatively easily accessible, nuclear electricity is also cheaper than most of other energy sources. It costs between 30 and 120 euros per MWh, compared with 150 to 300 for electricity generated from oil.

However, these crucial benefits have downsides in terms of safety and pollution risks, which have been a barrier to widespread use, especially since the Fukushima tragedy. Besides, installing as well as maintaining a nuclear plant is extremely expensive. Cooling water released into waterways can damage wildlife, especially as it alters the natural temperature of neighbouring streams. Most importantly, long-term nuclear waste management is still in the early stages of development. Radioactivity levels usually don’t decrease until several decades, which makes waste storage and recycling complicated and costly.

This uncertainty makes nuclear energy controversial all across Europe. Italians, for instance, massively voted against government plans to re-launch the sector in a referendum held in June 2011 (94% no-votes). Germany is expected to put a stop to nuclear energy production by 2020. Next to France, Slovakia and Belgium are major users of nuclear power, which covers 54% of their production, followed by Sweden with 45%. Other countries, such as Austria, Denmark and Portugal do not rely on atomic energy.

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