Climate Action and the Nuclear Conundrum
Alan Journet Ph.D.
Co-facilitator, Southern Oregon Climate Action Now
This discussions serves as a background explanation for SOCAN Position Statement 6 on the potential role of Nuclear Power Generation in addressing the climate crisis. The full document (43 pp including literature cited) is linked below in pdf format.
It may facilitate understanding of the three main arguments that underlie promotion of the nuclear option to review the basics of atomic structure and nuclear power plant operation, so I begin with a little background. Readers wishing to by-pass this brief discussion of atomic structure, the nuclear reaction, health effects of radiation, and nuclear reactors, can ‘cut to the chase’ by skipping to The Case for Nuclear Power (p. 21).
Many readers may already understand that all matter is composed of atoms and that atoms are composed of a nucleus itself comprising one or more of each of (positively charged) protons and (neutrally charged) neutrons, surrounded by a cloud of (negatively charged) electrons. A neat discussion of this is available as a three-and-a-half-minute Nova video (Kestin, undated). Elements in the Universe (carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, gold, nickel, etc., See Table 1) are different and exhibit different properties based on the number of protons present in the nucleus of the atom, the number of neutrons in the nucleus and the number of electrons surrounding that nucleus. An atom is neutral (in charge) if the number of negatively charged electrons outside the nucleus is equal to the number of positively charged protons inside. The atomic number of an atom is the number of protons while the atomic mass is the number of protons plus neutrons. Based on their atomic number, the 118 known elements are arrayed in ascending value in the Periodic Table of the elements (Table 1, modified here from Sharp and Bryner, 2022). The array is determined also by the arrangement of the electrons – a subject more complex to explain than the space available here allows.