With the increase in the world population and the related higher rates of power consumption, it is more important than ever to find sustainable sources of energy that don’t impact the environment. Unlike traditional sources such as coal, oil, and natural gas, nuclear power is considered by some experts to be the energy of the future. So, what gives it that distinction?

It’s cheap, relatively clean, and reliable.

A sustainable energy source

We know that, for the moment, even natural sources such as wind and solar power cannot keep up with our energy-hungry modern life. The question of sustainability has been popping up frequently recently as the fossil fuel reserves keep dwindling. Even fracking isn’t sustainable and we are starting to see the economical weaknesses. While wind and sunlight are renewable sources, the technology that can harness such power and produce enough energy to power a large city is still years ahead in the future. This leaves nuclear energy as the most viable source that humanity can rely on.

But how sustainable is it?

The answer is that it is very sustainable. It’s not that the uranium reserves are infinite, it’s that the technology used to burn it is much more efficient. Molten chloride fast reactors, can produce about ten times the amount of energy that current reactors make. That’s because they don’t just use the U-235 part of the nuclear fuel to burn, but everything gets burned and turned into energy. And with saltwater replacing mined uranium as fuel, we can get trillions of Kilowatt hour of energy a year for hundreds or even thousands of years in the future.

Benefits of nuclear energy

Besides sustainability, nuclear energy is considered a safer and cleaner alternative to fossil fuel. In terms of carbon emissions alone, nuclear reactors have a clean record in every sense of the word. When you consider that the average nuclear reactor produces 5 grams of CO2 emissions per Kilowatt hour and compare that to the 900 grams per Kilowatt hour that a single coal plant emits, it becomes clear which energy source is more environmentally friendly.

In addition, the cost of production of nuclear energy is extremely low in comparison to other more traditional energy production methods. This means that poor countries can have sufficient electricity at a low cost. Even if nuclear plants are expensive to build, their long-term return makes them a more viable power-producing investment. Furthermore, the energy produced by power plants is reliable and consistent. This is in contrast to wind or solar power sources which are notoriously intermittent and unreliable.

Risks involved

Despite all these benefits, nuclear power isn’t a risk-free source of energy. One of the most glaring issues related to nuclear reactors is nuclear waste which is hard to dispose of. Nuclear waste has a long life and no matter how deep it’s buried, assuming one can find a remote place to hide it, there’s always a potential for its accidental unearthing or even leakage.

Accidents in nuclear reactors are another threat. The Fukushima Daiichi accident in 2011 and before that the Chernobyl disaster in 1986 are two recent examples of the kind of danger that comes with harnessing nuclear power for peaceful purposes if it is not handled properly. And while the Fukushima incident was triggered by a strong earthquake that hit Japan, the causes of the overheating and eventual explosion of the nuclear reactor core at Chernobyl, Ukraine were entirely due to man-made errors.

The future of nuclear power

All these risks have to be taken into consideration when designing future nuclear reactors. The past few years have seen the emergence of a new generation of reactors that are not only safer but also more efficient in the way they burn nuclear fuel.

The way I see it both molten salt reactors, as well as modular and smaller reactors, are the way of the future. It is important that we replace the old reactors which are both inefficient and pose a risk to the environment with portable reactors that are cheaper to build and safer to operate.

Nuclear fusion, as opposed to the current method of splitting atoms to produce energy, is another path that promises to make nuclear reactors more productive. It also produces less radioactive waste making it more environmentally friendly.