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Nuclear power: Could it be a clean energy solution?

Nuclear power plants don’t emit greenhouse gases, but there are cost and safety drawbacks.

The Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Power Plant in Lusby, Maryland, is one of the plants that produce about 20 percent of the energy used in the United States. That process does not emit greenhouse gases, which contribute to climate change. But the plants are expensive to build, and there are concerns about the plants' safety. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

Most kids probably know what a nuclear power plant looks like because of the video game Fortnite or the television show “The Simpsons.” But how many know what goes on inside those facilities, or how it translates into the electricity that runs our homes?

At the heart of any nuclear power plant, there are tiny pieces of uranium called atoms. Carefully, and under control, technicians break apart these atoms using a reaction called nuclear fission (rhymes with vision). When that happens, tons of energy is released in the form of heat, which boils water and creates steam. This causes another device, known as a turbine, to spin very quickly.

“The turbine is coupled to an electric generator, causing it to also spin,” said William C. Evans, a retired nuclear scientist. “When the generator spins, electrical energy is produced, and is then sent to us to use, through long wires.”

Today there are 55 nuclear power plants in 28 states, according to the United States Government’s Office of Nuclear Energy. Together, these facilities — some of which use a slightly different process to create steam — produce about one-fifth of the electricity used in the United States.

“In fact, there is a nuclear plant [Calvert Cliffs] not far from Washington, D.C., near the Chesapeake Bay, that has been generating clean, reliable electrical energy since the mid-1970s,” Evans said.

Of course, there are serious risks associated with nuclear energy. In 1986, an accident at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in a place now called Ukraine led to 31 deaths within a few days and thousands of related illnesses in the years since for people living nearby. And in 2011, an earthquake and tsunami triggered another deadly accident at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in Japan. Nuclear fission also produces radioactive waste, which can harm people and animals if it’s not stored properly.

These incidents are rare, said Evans, but government officials and businesses absolutely need to work to prevent such accidents and deal with nuclear waste responsibly.

Another big drawback to nuclear energy is the cost that it requires to build one of the facilities. Although they cost several billion dollars each, these prices are nothing compared to what it will cost the world to let climate change continue, says Evans.

Nuclear power plants create enormous amounts of electrical energy that don’t put greenhouse gases into the air, said Evans. This is important, because the greenhouse gases produced by coal, natural gas and oil worsen climate change.

Nuclear energy cannot by itself fix climate change, but according to Evans, along with alternative energies such as wind and solar, it could be part of the solution.

Jason Bittel is a freelance journalist who often writes about animals. He is also the author of “How to Talk to a Tiger . . . and Other Animals.”


An earlier version of this story referred to the number of deaths and illnesses from the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant disaster as "thousands." There were 31 deaths within a few days. Illnesses in several thousand people have been linked to the incident. Scientists continue to study whether radiation from Chernobyl causes illnesses and deaths in the surrounding communities. The story has been updated.