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Nuclear Power vs. Solar Power: How Do They Compare?

Nuclear vs Solar

Green energy is a hot topic being discussed by policymakers, scientists, and the average energy consumer.  New forms of renewable energy are being discovered and exploited in a bid to break free of dirty fossil fuels that create unhealthy amounts of greenhouse gas emissions.

Two of the most talked-about green energy sources are nuclear power and solar power. How do these two types of renewable energy compare? Which one creates more energy? What are the benefits and downsides of nuclear power and solar power? We are going to answer all of these questions and more in this comprehensive comparison.

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Overview of Nuclear Power:

Nuclear Energy
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Nuclear power harnesses the power of the atom to create electricity. Nuclear power has been around since 1945 and is an integral part of power generation around the world. The United States, France, and Japan all generate sizeable amounts of electricity using nuclear power. Nuclear power has been brought back into the mainstream by the popularity of electric vehicles. Some proponents of nuclear power see it as a solution to the world’s energy problems. Nuclear power is an alternative to fossil fuels and can create massive amounts of electricity while producing little in the way of harmful byproducts.

How Nuclear Power Works

Nuclear power plants generate electricity by harvesting the energy from nuclear reactions. These reactions occur when unstable radioactive isotopes interact with each other. These interactions create a chain reaction of microscopic particles that fly apart and bump into each other at increasing speeds. The result is a massive amount of energy that creates heat and light.

The most famous example of these reactions is nuclear bombs which let these chain reactions continue out of control. The result is a massive explosion that demonstrates the power of nuclear fission. Nuclear reactors control these reactions and harness the power to create electricity.

The heat from nuclear reactions is used to superheat water until it turns into steam. The steam is then directed from the nuclear reaction to a set of turbines. The steam turns the turbines which spin and create electricity. This process can happen in a closed system where the reaction is kept going indefinitely. The water in the steam system can be piped in from a nearby ocean or river and the steam generation can run, theoretically, forever. As long as the turbines keep spinning, the plant will continue to create electricity.

Nuclear Power Plant
Image Credit: distelAPPArath, Pixabay

The Downsides of Nuclear Power

Despite the potential, nuclear power has a series of considerable downsides. First, nuclear power creates radioactive waste. The nuclear reactions are fueled by a series of rods and pellets that contain radioactive materials. When these pellets are used up, they have to be disposed of—which is not an easy feat. There are few places to safely dispose of nuclear waste. The radioactive material is the biggest letdown to an otherwise efficient and clean power source.

The other problem is the cost of building new nuclear facilities. Since nuclear technology is extremely sensitive, it has to be approved and overseen by the federal government. The cost to build new nuclear plants can run in the billions of dollars.

People are also wary of living near nuclear power plants. Average people do not want to live in the shadow of a nuclear plant for fear of devastating accidents and nuclear waste transportation. The cost plus the difficulty of finding a suitable location for nuclear plants makes them very difficult to get approved and see through to completion.

Pros
  • Huge potential
  • Can run for very long periods
  • Clean energy source
Cons
  • Expensive
  • Nuclear waste

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Overview of Solar Power:

solar power system installed on the roof
Image Credit: ulleo, Pixabay

Solar power is one of the fastest-growing sources of energy in the world. Solar technology has continued to get better and more affordable leading to more people, companies, and governments investing in new solar panels for electricity. Solar panels take the power of the sun and transfer it to electricity that people can use. Solar panels are great because, barring a bad spate of prolonged weather, the sun is up every day. Once solar panels are installed they require very little maintenance and will continue to generate power as long as the sun is shining.

Solar panels create no greenhouse gas emissions and do not have any harmful byproducts. The only waste that comes from solar panels is the panels themselves. Solar panels can go bad every 20 to 50 years but that number could rise as the technology continues to be refined.

How Solar Power Works

There are two types of solar power, photovoltaic and concentrated. Photovoltaic solar power uses classic solar panels to create electricity. Photovoltaic cells absorb the light from the sun. The light excites a series of internal electric fields inside the cell which in turn generates electricity. Photovoltaic cells are extremely passive and only require direct sunlight in order to generate electricity. The cells in the solar panel then transfer the energy to a nearby electric grid or it can transfer the electricity to a battery for storage.

The other form of solar power is concentrated. Concentrated solar power uses mirrors to direct large amounts of sunlight towards a water tank. The increased heat and light warm the water until it boils and creates steam which is then used to power a typical steam turbine system. Concentrated solar farms are less common than photovoltaic systems.

polycrystalline solar panel
Image Credit:Phuketian.S, Shutterstock

Downsides of Solar Power

Solar power has some key downsides that keep it from truly flourishing. First, solar power is not very efficient. It has a lot of energy waste and it does not capture as much power as it could. This problem could be worked out in the future as the technology continues to develop but as of now, a solar panel is not as efficient as other sources of energy. Solar power also needs a lot of space to function. Since solar panels are not that efficient you need a lot of panels to generate an appreciable amount of energy. Concentrated solar farms especially need a lot of room for hundreds of mirrors to focus the incoming sunlight.

Another problem with solar power is the sun is only up for half of the day. Some places have better climates suited for solar power generation than others. Cloudy climates, northern latitudes, and areas with a lot of hills vastly decrease the viability of solar power. So solar power can only draw sunlight half of the time and they are only truly effective in certain areas where the sunlight is unimpeded. That makes solar power hard to scale and tricky to get right.

Pros
  • Affordable
  • Passive
  • Clean energy
Cons
  • Needs a lot of space
  • The sun doesn’t shine all the time
  • Geography plays a huge role in the efficiency

solar power dividerFAQs

Is Nuclear More Expensive Than Solar?

Yes. Nuclear power is much more expensive than solar power. Solar power has been steadily getting more affordable over the years. Individual homeowners can get solar panels installed to power their homes for $30,000 or less. On the other hand, nuclear power plants cost billions of dollars to build and millions of dollars to upkeep. The initial development costs of nuclear power are one of the biggest hindrances to its continued development.

Solar panels are much cheaper. Building a solar farm will cost a municipal government or power company much less than even thinking about starting a nuclear project. However, solar farms produce much less energy than a nuclear power plant can.

Nuclear Power Plant Sunset
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Does Solar or Nuclear Create More Power?

Nuclear power generates more electricity than solar in the United States. Nuclear energy accounts for about 10% of US energy while solar only accounts for 1.2%. Renewable energy overall accounts for 12% of all energy generated in the United States but that category is made up of solar, wind, geothermal, hydroelectric, and others. However, the amount of renewable energy being generated year over year continues to increase while nuclear power is slated to remain static or even decline.

When it comes to raw energy-producing potential, nuclear is king. Nuclear power has the potential to generate nearly unlimited amounts of electricity under the right conditions. Solar can also produce as much energy as the sun puts out every day but to generate more energy you need to install more and more solar panels to capture the additional power.

Is Nuclear Power Green Energy?

Yes. Nuclear power counts as green energy. Nuclear power plants do not put measurable amounts of greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere. The largest atmospheric byproduct of nuclear power is simple steam. Nuclear power does create radioactive fuel rods and pellets as a byproduct as well but these materials do not affect the atmosphere and therefore do not contribute to greenhouse gas emissions. The fact that nuclear plants can create large amounts of electricity without creating greenhouse gasses makes it a green energy source.

Ideally, nuclear power could be paired with the upswell in electric vehicles to create a world where there are very few greenhouse gasses being produced. If all power came from nuclear power plants and cars produced no CO2 exhaust, then modernized countries could decrease their greenhouse gas emissions to nearly zero.

But despite nuclear being a massive source of green energy, there are a lot of stumbling blocks including radioactive waste and massive development costs.

Nuclear Plant
Image Credit: ResoneTIC, Pixabay

Is Nuclear Power Safe?

Yes. Nuclear power is incredibly safe. Due to the sensitive nature of nuclear technology, nuke plants are extremely well guarded and secure. The rate of accidents at nuclear power plants is some of the lowest in the world. The last major nuclear disaster, at Fukushima, Japan, came about due to a catastrophic natural disaster rather than a problem with the plant itself. While accidents are very rare, any nuclear accident has the potential to spiral out of control into a much larger issue which is why people are wary about nuclear power compared to other sources of energy.

solar power dividerConclusion

Nuclear energy and solar energy both have a place in a greener energy future. Nuclear power creates a large amount of electricity by exploiting nuclear reactions while solar energy passively takes energy from the sun and turns it into power. However, neither one of these sources of power are perfect and they both have things that hold them back from being truly perfect. Solar and nuclear can absolutely live side-by-side in a future powered by green and renewable energy.


Featured Image Credit : (L) | (R) Piqsels

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