Nuclear power is produced during a process called fission, in which the nucleus of an atom is split in two. When the atom is split, a great deal of energy is released, which can be used to power an electromagnetic generator for electricity production. Unlike the other two most common types of power plants—coal and natural gas plants—the process of nuclear power generation does not use fossil fuels or produce greenhouse gases. Many people thus consider nuclear power a more desirable energy source than coal or natural gas.
The unit of measurement for a power plant's electrical output is kilowatt-hours (kWh), the amount of electricity used by a 1,000-watt appliance over the course of an hour. Thus, 10 100-watt lightbulbs burning for one hour would use one kWh of power, as would one 100-watt lightbulb burning for 10 hours. Compared with fossil fuels, a given quantity of nuclear material produces far more energy than the same quality of any fossil fuel. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) estimates the energy output of commonly used fuels as follows:
- one kilogram (approximately 2.2 pounds) of wood = 1 kWh of power
- one kilogram of coal = 3 kWh of power
- one kilogram of oil = 4 kWh of power
- one kilogram of uranium = 50,000 kWh of power! Nuclear power plants use enriched uranium to generate the chain reactions needed to create nuclear energy. Currently, most plants can recycle that uranium just a few times before the supply is depleted, and the spent fuel becomes radioactive nuclear waste.
Japan has no indigenous uranium. Its 2011 requirements of 8195 tU will be met from Australia (about one third), Canada, Kazakhstan and elsewhere.
Japan is facing an unprecedented nuclear emergency after a major uranium leak. Radiation levels at the Tokaimura nuclear fuel-processing plant in north-east Japan are 15,000 times higher than normal. Japan has 51 commercial nuclear power reactors that provide one-third of the country's electricity. With few natural resources of its own, Japan imports nearly all its fuel oil.
Since the oil crisis of 1973, successive governments have made concerted efforts to become self-sufficient. By the year 2010, Japan wants to produce 42% of its energy in nuclear plants.
Tucker, William. Terrestrial Energy: How Nuclear Energy Will Lead the Green Revolution and End America's Energy Odyssey. Savage, Md.: Bartleby Press, 2008.
Cravens, Gwyneth. Power to Save the World: The Truth About Nuclear Energy. New York: Knopf, 2007.
"Nuclear Power for the 21st Century." Issues & Controversies. Facts On File News Services, 10 May 2010. Web. 19 Mar. 2011.