Energy: Approximately 200 MeV of energy is released in a fission reaction. Compared to breaking a carbon bond such as burning coal, releases 4 eV of energy. Therefore, much less uranium or other fissile fuel is needed to create the same amount of energy. Additionally, in the LWR used in the U.S. typically 97% of the energy released in a fission reaction is carried away in the form of heat by the water coolant. Overall the electric efficiency of nuclear plants is about 33%.
Because of high energy density there is relatively little waster. The entire spent nuclear fuel from this country that has been built up over the last 40 or so years by 100 or so plants that produce about 20% of this country's electricity is 56,000 tons. This country consumes just over 1 billion tons in coal each year. Like mining anything, heavy machinery and electricity are needed to do the job. However, the simple fact is if it wasn't economical it wouldn't be done. Additionally, not that much uranium actually needs to be mined compared to coal. What's more is that the pebble bed reactor and other potential Generation IV reactors that are gas cooled will provide process heat applications. One very important role is using that heat to create hydrogen. Therefore, if you have non-CO2 electricity production, and heavy machinery running on hydrogen, the mining, enriching, and fabrication, and even reprocessing would have even less of a carbon footprint. It can be found all over the web, that on a per unit of electrical energy basis, Nuclear energy has the lowest greenhouse emission cycle with the exception of hydroelectric. Although still very low compared to coal, gas, and oil, both solar and wind power require much more construction than nuclear plants for the same amount of energy and in turn have slightly more CO2 release in the cycle.
I have a Master's in nuclear engineering. I realize that nuclear power is not perfect. Nor is any other energy source and implementation perfect. Like most people, I would love the day when all our energy can be clean, renewable and cheap. However, all forms have their virtues and vices. Solar currently cannot compete economically with the mainstream sources of energy and like wind suffers from the inability to produce power much more than 20% of the time (Wind can be as high as 40%). Compared to nuclear which produces 90% of the time out of year. It doesn't shut down at night. It works when the air is still. Nuclear's vice is not radiation release. Coal plants release far more radiation than nuclear plants do. More people die each year from mining coal and oil than died from the accident at Chernobyl. The problem isn't long term storage of nuclear waste. 1.7 billion years ago natural conditions underground in Oklo, Africa prompted a series of fission reactions that produced plutonium. Scientific studies have shown that for 1.7 billion years these products moved 10 feet or less. So storing even without reprocessing can be done safely.
The vice of nuclear energy is that it instills fear in those who are not informed.
Nuclear may not be answer 500 years from now. However, fossil fuels can no longer be a solution if we want to have an unpolluted earth 500 years from now. Solar and Wind are great sources of power, but in the near future, they cannot by themselves meet the energy demands of the world. Nuclear does provide the answer now.
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