Solar Vs. Nuclear Energy (The 5 Key Differences)

With fossil fuels diminishing and climate change up in arms, the world is looking for energy sources that are more environmentally clean that will be the new champion of our global energy war. This is where solar and nuclear energy come in. Is one better than the other, or do they both serve a purpose in their ways?

Nuclear energy is generated through the process of uranium atoms being split. This process is called fission, and it releases heat which is eventually used to spin turbines and generate electricity. Solar energy harnesses the sun’s energy using photovoltaic cells to generate electricity.

We use electricity to power every aspect of our lives, like making a cup of tea. Energy exists in different forms. The evolution of energy had been dramatic in the 20th century as more environmentally clean energy sources were discovered.

solar vs nuclear energy

What Is Solar Energy?

Solar is very different from nuclear energy because it harnesses the sun’s power. Radiation in the form of light is taken from the sun and converted into electricity. This is typically done through PV cells made of semi-conductive materials like silicon.

When the PV cells absorb sunlight, photons of light transfer that energy to electrons, which creates energy in the form of an electric current as the electrons flow through the material.

What Is Nuclear Energy?

Nuclear energy is the energy stored in the nucleus of a uranium atom. The energy released from this atom gives way to nuclear energy that can be used. The main way this is done is through nuclear fission.

Nuclear power plants use nuclear fission to split apart atoms to form smaller atoms, which releases energy and generates heat that typically heats water, which produces steam that turns turbines to produce electricity.

How Is Solar And Nuclear Energy Classified?

big number of solar panels

Because of the use of the sun, solar energy is classified as a renewable energy source since it is a source of energy that can theoretically regenerate and replenish itself indefinitely. Some people argue that nuclear energy should also be classified as renewable, but most agree that it is more accurately classifiable as a sustainable energy source.

This means that while nuclear energy might not be seen as infinite, the consumption rate is insignificant compared to the amount of the supply. There’s only a finite amount of nuclear energy, but the possibility of someone using so much of it that the world runs out is very slim.

How Much Power Is Generated? Which Energy Is The Safest?

nuclear station

Nuclear power generates around 10.6% of the electricity used worldwide, while solar energy only suppliers less than 6.3%. This clearly shows that nuclear energy is the winner in this regard. But, other things should be considered when deciding on which one wins overall.

When looking at horrific accidents like the disaster in Chernobyl, the reputation that nuclear energy has, takes a sharp hit and a turn for the worst, making it seem like a dangerous form of energy. With the fear of harmful radiation, radioactive waste, and the possible threats of nuclear reactor malfunction, many people have turned their backs on nuclear energy.

However, very few deaths actually occur directly or indirectly from nuclear power plants. While the power of nuclear energy should not be underestimated, it might be safer than solar energy. You’re probably wondering how that is possible.

Here’s how. Based on recent findings, solar energy appears to have a death rate of 0.44 deaths per terawatt hour, while nuclear energy appears to have a death rate of only 0.07 deaths per terawatt hour.

Is Nuclear Or Solar Energy The Cleanest?

nuclear station field

I am sure that you have seen nuclear power plants, and they often look like there are large amounts of smoke being emitted into the universe, but is that the case? There is a huge misconception that the smoke coming out of nuclear plants is a dangerous and radioactive pollutant.

It is steam, simple water vapor coming out of the plants, unlike coal plants that emit ashes, toxins, and greenhouse gases. A nuclear plant is harmless because extracting energy from nuclear power is considered one of the safest and cleanest ways of getting electricity.

However, waste comes hand in hand with emissions, and there isn’t a viable long-term solution for nuclear waste storage. There are currently three main options: onsite storage, long-term storage, reprocessing fuel for use and other nuclear energy plants. Neither is ideal.

solar station

Solar panels produce electricity without creating emissions, which sounds great, but it is also not the whole story. Producing solar panels takes lots of energy. Raw materials have to be found, transported, processed, and the whole thing has to be assembled.

Due to lifecycle emissions, this means greenhouse gas emissions since our economy still largely runs on fossil fuels. On top of that, producing solar cells requires a few chemical substances, some of which can negatively affect the environment and people alike.

For example, the process of refining the silicone produces silicon tetrachloride. Yes, it can be recycled and reused, but it is not clear whether manufactures always do that. If it ends up in the water, it can have devastating effects. Although solar energy isn’t completely emissions-free, it is one of the climate-friendly energy sources we have.

Which One Costs Less, Nuclear Or Solar Energy?

nuclear station railway

In the United States, solar energy costs $0.12 per kilowatt-hour while nuclear energy costs $0.02 per kilowatt-hour. Not only is nuclear energy far cheaper in terms of operating costs at around a sixth of the price of solar, but it also doesn’t require large amounts of land either.

It would take around 45 square miles of solar PV to produce the same amount of electricity as that of a single multi reactor nuclear power plant. In all fairness, with solar panels having the ability to go on roofs of homes and buildings, it might not take up that much extra space, but the difference between their spatial needs is still somewhat staggering.

Conclusion

Both nuclear and solar energy has great potential as power sources of the future. If there is one thing for certain, the world can always use better advancements in our energy production to continue to fuel our ever-advancing society.

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