Nuclear Power and Other Types of Energy
Nuclear energy is generated when the nucleus of an atom is split into two smaller nuclei (plural form of nucleus). This splitting, called fission, releases an incredible amount of energy and when controlled in a nuclear chain reaction, it can be a very efficient power source. This controlled reaction was first done by the Italian physicist, Enrico Fermi, in 1942. Sadly, if a chain reaction goes out of control, a terrible explosion can occur. This happened in 1986 at Chernobyl, USSR, now the Ukraine. Even though only 30 people died from the direct results of the explosion, over 2,000 deaths have been blamed on the accident, due to the effects of radiation.
Compared to other types of fuel, nuclear fuel produces a more massive amount of energy. This happens to be one of the main reasons the United States and other countries have developed, or are in the process of developing, nuclear power plants. For example, radioactive uranium can create 3 million times more energy as the same amount of coal. Both coal power plants and nuclear power plants use their fuel to heat up water to produce steam. This steam is then used to turn turbines to create electricity. Are nuclear power plants safe, though? And, should every country be allowed to create nuclear power? Those are questions that the citizens of the world must consider.
Renewable Energy Sources
As of 2000, about 75% of the energy the United States consumes comes from non-renewable sources such as the fossil fuels, oil, coal, and gas. These are limited sources of energy, where the Earth’s supply will eventually run out. Fossil fuels will not only eventually run out, but they are also known to damage the environment, often by pollution. On the other hand, nuclear energy, even though it is more efficient, produces harmful radioactive waste that cannot be destroyed. Storage is the only option, and that, too, has its potential dangers. So physical scientists have been tasked with determining other sources of energy, especially ones that are of unlimited supply and cause as little damage to the environment as possible. Two very potential sources are solar energy and hydroelectric energy.
Solar energy is a renewable resource, a virtually unlimited supply. Solar cells gather sunlight to produce electricity, and you probably have seen these on homes before. Often solar cells are packed together to form panels that face the Sun to collect its energy. One advantage of solar cells is that they can be very small; in fact you probably have seen them on solar power calculators. Cover the solar cells up, and the calculator loses power.
The great advantage of solar energy, besides being unlimited, is that it does not pollute the environment. Sounds like the perfect solution, so why are we not all using it now? The costs of installing and using solar panels are still too high to be cost effective; however, with advances in technology the costs should decrease enough for a wider use.
Hydroelectric energy comes from the energy created by running rivers. The mass movement of water is used to turn the turbines to produce electricity. This type of resources is being used today all around the world, but some environmentalists will say that it might not be the best thing for the environment, because huge dams must be built to control the river’s flow, thus altering many animals’ habitats. Also, only large enough rivers can be used, thus many areas of the world would not be able to benefit from hydroelectric energy.
Europe has used this final type of alternative energy source for many centuries. You have probably seen windmills in the Palm Springs area in California, in pictures of Holland, and in the story of Don Quixote. Windmills come in all shapes and sizes, but they all can use wind energy to produce power to be used to grind grain or produce electricity. The disadvantage of wind energy is that the energy it produces is quite small, definitely not enough to be a large source for our future.
Geothermal energy would be another great alternative as it would tap into the heat produced by the interior of the Earth to produce electricity; in fact, Iceland uses this type quite effectively. Today, though, we have not solved all of the technological problems associated with drilling down far enough into the Earth to tap into this heat. Again, only time will tell if this will be a viable alternative for power.
Are there other types of energy yet undiscovered? Which one do you believe the United States will most rely upon in the next 50 years? Even though physical scientists will play a large part on those two questions, it will also be up to you and me. Currently, our main sources of energy are proving to be a hazard to our Earth, and to keep our world safe, only tough laws regulating energy production help. So as you can see, our energy future is not just a scientific one, but also a political one.