Warm up to Nuclear main content.

Warm up to Nuclear

Part of the Climate Change exhibition.

Atoms are the building blocks of all matter. Despite their tiny size, they can release an extraordinary amount of energy when split into smaller pieces. Nuclear reactors tap into this power source by splitting uranium-235 atoms, which releases heat that is used to drive an electrical generator. Indeed, a single pellet of uranium fuel—about the size of your fingertip—can generate as much electricity as about 570 liters (150 gallons) of oil.

Nuclear power is...

  • free of CO2. The production of nuclear power generates no greenhouse gases or air pollution, except during uranium mining and processing.
  • here today. Nuclear power is a proven technology that already provides a significant portion of the world's electricity—almost 15 percent in 2005.
  • relatively safe. New nuclear reactors are relatively safe. Reactor disasters at Three Mile Island, Pennsylvania, in 1979 and Chernobyl, Ukraine, in 1986 have encouraged better reactor management and safer technologies.
  • available to few. Currently, international agreements limit nuclear technology to only a handful of countries.
  • expensive. Electricity from modern nuclear power plants, which are expensive to build and operate, costs about two to three times as much as electricity from coal- or gas-fired plants.
  • still dangerous. Nuclear plants produce radioactive waste that must be stored in isolation for thousands of years. And nuclear fuel and waste can be used to produce devastating nuclear weapons.

25% of global electricity needs this century could be met by nuclear power

There is probably enough mineable uranium on Earth for nuclear power to provide almost 25 percent of the world's electricity during this century.

Worrying About Weapons

Nuclear power comes with substantial risks, especially with regard to nuclear weapons. First, uranium enrichment facilities can be redirected to produce uranium that can be used in nuclear bombs. And second, nuclear plants that reuse spent uranium fuel produce plutonium-239, which can also be used in weapons. Today, there is enough plutonium-239 in Europe, Russia and Japan alone to produce more than 25,000 nuclear weapons.

Where's The Waste?

Waste from nuclear plants is extremely dangerous and should be stored underground where it cannot be disturbed. Even though most experts agree that such storage can be made reasonably safe, there are still no permanent nuclear waste repositories anywhere in the world.

Nuclear Nation

France gets about 80 percent of its electricity--a greater portion than any other nation--from 58 nuclear reactors. Most nuclear waste from French plants is recycled and used once more.