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Nuclear energy supplies approximately one-fifth of the country’s electricity. Despite that, very few people understand how a nuclear reactor works. Only one-third of the high school seniors from the National Energy Literacy Survey understand that the nuclear energy process does not generate carbon dioxide or other air pollutants.

Survey Question: Nuclear reactors do NOT produce air pollution or carbon dioxide while operating.

Student Answers: 33% correct, 67% incorrect

  • True (33%) [CORRECT]
  • False (67%)


Student Data Nuclear Energy Carbon Free - National Energy Literacy Survey

Nuclear energy is an important part of any discussion on the future of energy in our country. Nuclear power plants are closing all across the country . Energy leaders will need to determine how to replace the electricity generated by those plants. All things considered, this is a topic of contention. A basic understanding of nuclear energy is critical for students as they enter a society transitioning away from carbon-based power.

Nuclear power plants generate electricity in much the same way as fossil fuel plants. Nuclear reactors create steam to turn a turbine, which spins a generator. However, a nuclear reactor burns nothing. Instead the heat comes from the controlled breakdown of uranium atoms into lighter elements. It is the burning of fuels that creates carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides. No burning means no air pollution in a nuclear plant. This is attractive to those concerned about our nation’s carbon footprint. Nuclear energy provides carbon-free electricity around the clock and does not rely on weather conditions like wind or solar power.

Nuclear Energy Pros & Cons

One unique challenge with nuclear energy is safety. Nuclear power plants are very expensive to build because they need thick structures around the radioactive reactor, and complex control systems for the reactor and cooling system as protections. Because of this, the Department of Energy is investing large sums of money in new reactor designs with the goal of improving safety and reducing construction costs.

Disposal of nuclear waste creates issues. Nuclear power plants create only a small fraction of our country’s nuclear waste. Currently special containers store all of that waste at the power plant. When closing a plant, the onsite nuclear waste becomes a problem.

As with other power plants, the nuclear energy process does generate waste heat, which has to be released into the environment. That is the purpose of the large cooling towers everyone thinks of when they picture a nuclear power plant. Cooling water is brought in from a nearby lake or river. Then the warmer water released back to the source, increasing its temperature. This is called “thermal pollution” and is common with fossil fuel and biomass plants too. Thermal pollution can cause environmental problems such as algal blooms and fish kills, but it can also provide a warm haven for fish, manatees, etc., during the winter.

Nuclear power has been a reliable source of power for many decades. Until we develop cost-effective ways of storing the energy produced by renewable energy sources like wind and solar power, it will be difficult to meet all of our country’s electricity demand with renewables alone. Nuclear energy is an ideal partner with renewables to provide reliable electricity without adding carbon to the atmosphere.
During the 2016-2017 school year, NEF launched an unprecedented initiative call the National Energy Literacy Survey. The energy survey measured high school students’ knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors. For more information regarding the National Energy Literacy Survey please reach out to [email protected]