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4 Future of Nuclear Energy

4 Future of Nuclear Energy

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Chemistry of Sustainable Energy

minimizing the generation of nuclear waste. The source of energy is the fusion of

deuterium and tritium to form helium (Equation 9.18):



H + 13 H → 24 He + 10 n ( +17.5 Mev) (9.18)

The amount of energy released from this reaction is 3.5 MeV/nucleon (compared

to 0.5 MeV/nucleon for a typical fission reaction (Irvine 2011)). There is no generation of carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gases and no possibility of an uncontrolled reaction. Furthermore, with the absence of Pu-239, the concern of nuclear

proliferation is also absent.

Unfortunately, it takes Sun-like temperatures to initiate the fusion reaction (over 100

million degrees Celsius)! While this is easy enough to attain in the form of the hydrogen

bomb, creating nuclear fusion in a controlled manner for generation of electricity is a

severe technological challenge. In addition, the economic challenge is so great that to

build a fusion reactor will require international cooperation. Such a cohort has been

formed between India, the European Union, Russia, Japan, the United States, China,

and Korea under the acronym ITER: the International Thermonuclear Experimental

Reactor (http://www.iter.org/). The ITER project is in the process of building a prototype

fusion reactor that plans to produce 500 MW output from 50 MW input. Construction

began in southern France in 2010 with full operation targeted for early 2027.

The key to the ITER project is magnetic confinement of the fusion materials in

a tokamak vessel (Figure 9.12). In a torus-shaped chamber, the deuterium and tritium nuclei will be heated under vacuum to temperatures above 150 million degrees

Celsius, forming a gaseous mixture of positive ions and electrons (a plasma) in which

fusion can occur. By the use of extremely strong magnetic fields, the plasma can be

concentrated and held in the center of the torus so that no material touches the walls.

FIGURE 9.12  (See color insert.) The ITER tokomak fusion reactor. (From http://www.iter.



Nuclear Energy


If the plasma did make contact with the walls, the reaction would instantly cease and

the material of the wall would be destroyed.

While fusion energy is appealing from the viewpoint of safe and sustainable

nuclear power, this approach is astronomically challenging and expensive. Any sort

of large-scale implementation of fusion energy is many decades away.


It should be evident that research and development in the area of nuclear energy

is ongoing even if the public perception of nuclear power is still largely negative.

If there is one clear conclusion that can be made about the possible future use of

nuclear energy as a sustainable energy source, it is “it is complicated.”

• The capital costs associated with building, operating, and decommissioning a

nuclear power plant are truly staggering and future investments are likely to be

favorable only if a carbon tax is implemented on fossil fuel-generated energy.

• The issue of waste is far from settled, although the promise of Generation

IV nuclear reactors and uranium–thorium fuel cycle provide some hope

for safer nuclear energy generation without the formation of large volumes

of waste that must be safeguarded for thousands of years. However, these

technologies are many years from large-scale implementation.

• Sustainable nuclear power is achievable only if the fuel cycle is closed and

the spent fuel reprocessed. Countries that do not allow reprocessing must

look at the advantages and disadvantages of closing the fuel cycle from both

a policy and a technological point of view.



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American Institute of Physics Press.

Irvine, M. 2011. Nuclear Power. A Very Short Introduction. New York: Oxford University Press.

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International Collaboration on Nuclear Fusion: http://www.iter.org/.

United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission: http://www.nrc.gov/.

World Nuclear Association: http://www.world-nuclear.org/.


Ansolabehere, S., J. Deutsch, M.J. Driscoll et  al. 2003. The Future of Nuclear Power, An

Interdisciplinary MIT Study. ISBN 0-615-12420-8. Cambridge, MA: Massachusetts

Institute of Technology.

Armaroli, N. and V. Balzani. 2011. Energy for a Sustainable World. Weinheim, FRG:



Chemistry of Sustainable Energy

Bodansky, D. 1996. Nuclear Energy: Principles, Practices, and Prospects. Woodbury, NY:

American Institute of Physics Press.

Braley, J.C., T.S. Grimes, and K.L. Nash. 2011. Alternatives to HDEHP and DTPA for simplified TALSPEAK separations. Ind. Eng. Chem. Res. 51 (2):629–638.

Char, N.L. and B.J. Csik. 1987. Nuclear power development: History and outlook. IAEA Bull.


Cochran, T.B., H.A. Feiveson, W. Patterson, et  al. 2010. Fast Breeder Reactor Programs:

History and Status. Princeton, NJ: International Panel on Fissile Materials.

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thorium reactors for power generation? Environ. Sci. Technol. 45 (15):6237–6238.

Davis, S.J., K. Caldeira, and H.D. Matthews. 2010. Future CO2 emissions and climate change

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report 10/11. London, UK: Reproduced by permission of The Royal Society of Chemistry.

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ligands to separate actinides and lanthanides. Inorg. Chem. 52:3414–3428.

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World Series. London: Elsevier.

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Nuclear Energy




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Closing Remarks

The question for humanity, then, is not whether humans and our civilizations will

­survive, but rather what kind of a planet we will inhabit.

Shellenberger and Nordhaus 2011

Science works. From initial empirical insights to theoretical explorations and finally

to implemented designs we have managed to create a standard of living (for some)

that was inconceivable a few decades ago. As John O’M. Bockis states in the foreword to the book Future Energy, “we have grown fat and happy on carbon.” Process

efficiencies have increased steadily; with continuing advancements in nanotechnology and analytical and computational methods. it is likely that they will continue to

do so as the depth of our understanding of atomic level processes grows. We have a

variety of energy options that could, potentially, reduce our dependence on carbon

and begin to assuage the current assault on the environment. That is the good news.

But as Bockis goes on to add “. . . the banquet is on its last course and there is really

not much time left” (Letcher 2008).

The best solutions science has to offer cannot work without a brutally realistic

perspective when it comes to sustainability. The Earth is, for all practical purposes,

a closed system. In every endeavor—scientific or otherwise—our mindset must

change to keep this perspective foremost. Other than energy from the Sun, there are

essentially no additional material inputs on our planet. We are very much a part of

this closed system and we must coexist with our outputs: what we do to the Earth we

do to ourselves. Aboriginal cultures were keenly aware of this reality and worked

and lived with the gifts and constraints of their environment; we would be wise to

embrace their wisdom.

Given this reality, it is imperative that our careless use of resources be addressed.

Waste abounds in our material world: in the Bakken fields of western North Dakota,

the night sky is lit up with flares from “waste” gas—enough to heat one-half million

homes per day (Manning 2013). As chemists, we generate waste in abundance and

toss away carbon with abandon and added expense. Although most metals are recyclable, few are recycled to any great extent (Knowledge Transfer Network 2010).

Waste heat, waste materials, waste water—we discard these resources at our own peril

and recover them at great energetic and environmental costs. A serious focus on sustainability requires designing everything with recovery, recycling, and reuse in mind.

However, far and away the most draconian impact we are making on the planet

is from our population growth. The ever-increasing number of humans shows absolutely no sign of waning (Figure 10.1) and is, as pointed out in the introduction to

this book, an issue that has overwhelming consequences. In their book Energy for

a Sustainable World, authors Armaroli and Balzani point out that to maintain the

rate of our increasing energy consumption “we need to build every day about three



Chemistry of Sustainable Energy


World population growth, 1950–2010 (thousands)







































FIGURE 10.1  Global population growth, both sexes. (With permission from United Nations

Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division. 2013. World Population

Prospects: The 2012 Revision (CD-ROM edition) 2013 [cited July 12, 2013]. Available from


carbon-burning power plants, or two nuclear plants, or 10 km2 of photovoltaic modules” (Armaroli and Balzani 2011). Our rate of population growth and the attendant

rate of energy consumption is unsustainable no matter how much our efficiencies

increase or what solutions scientists can provide. And of the more than 7 billion

humans that now populate this planet, roughly 12% (the G8 nations of France, West

Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom, the United States, Russia, and Canada)

consume about one-half of the world’s primary energy supply while the poorest 25%

consume less than 3%, a disparity that is morally untenable (Armaroli and Balzani


We must transform how we use energy, how much, and where it comes from. It

will require implementation of all of the approaches in this book—not just one or

two—to begin to solve the problem of sustainable energy. But this is a social and cultural as well as technological problem. Ultimately, the problem of sustainable energy

is immensely cross-cutting, requiring not only the input and ability of scientists, but

also educators and ethicists, sociologists, politicians, and poets—all who can see,

write, think, understand, communicate, and work together to face our conundrum.

The issues associated with energy use and climate change provide the most interdisciplinary intersection of human problem solving.

Closing Remarks


Humans may not stop fighting wars, but as natural resources dwindle and climate

change tightens its grip, we have an opportunity to recognize that all of us on the planet

are engaged in the same struggle. Our challenges are a chance for us to come together,

if we can keep them from driving us apart.

Blake 2013


Armaroli, N. and V. Balzani. 2011. Energy for a Sustainable World. Weinheim, FRG:


Blake, H.E. 2013. Preamble. Orion, May/June, 1.

Knowledge Transfer Network. 2013. Minerals and Elements Review. Chemistry Innovation

Ltd. 2010 [cited May 8, 2013]. Available from http://www.chemistryinnovation.co.uk/


Letcher, T.M. 2008. Future Energy. Oxford, UK: Elsevier.

Manning, R. 2013. Letter from Elkhorn Ranch. Bakken business. The price of North Dakota’s

fracking boom. Harper’s March 2013, 29–38.

Shellenberger, M. and T. Nordhaus. 2011. Evolve. A case for modernization as the road to salvation. Orion, September/October. http://www.orionmagazine.org/index.php/articles/


United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division. 2013. World

Population Prospects: The 2012 Revision (CD-ROM edition) 2013 [cited July 12, 2013].

Available from http://esa.un.org/unpd/wpp/Excel-Data/population.htm.

Appendix I: SI Units and


Measured Quantity




Electric current

Temperature (thermodynamic)

Amount of substance


Energy, work, quantity of heat

Electromotive force

Electrical conductance

Electrical resistance

Electrical charge


E (exa)

P (peta)

T (tera)

G (giga)

M (mega)

K (kilo)

SI Unit










siemens (A/V)

ohms (V/A)


















1 × 10

1 × 1015

1 × 1012

1 × 109

1 × 106

1 × 103

m (milli)

1 × 10−3

1 × 10−6

1 × 10−9

1 × 10−12

1 × 10−15


μ (micro)

n (nano)

p (pico)

f (femto)

Source: Adapted from NIST Reference on Constants, Units, and Uncertainty.

http://physics.nist.gov/cuu/Units/units.html. Accessed June 7, 2013.


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