We utilize a variety of processes involving reactions of different elements and materials to provide us with the energy we use in our everyday lives. The process most familiar to us, combustion, involves chemical reactions. During combustion, molecules in matter rapidly combine with oxygen, and the atoms in the molecules are rearranged. During such chemical reactions, energy is released. We then use this energy for heating, cooking, or electrical generation. In controlled nuclear reactions, by contrast, the elements that serve as fuel -- uranium and plutonium in fission reactions, and two forms of hydrogen in fusion reactions -- are transformed at the atomic nuclear level into different elements with lower energy. Again, usable energy is released, but in these reactions the energy yield is significantly higher than in chemical reactions.
Nuclear physicist Dr. Charles Till, a strong proponent of the further development of nuclear technologies, argues that nuclear power is not only safe, but is also cleaner than fossil fuels, which produce greenhouse gases and other pollutants. Nuclear energy production yields a small volume of waste relative to that produced by burning fossil fuels. However, fears about the dangers of this waste -- in particular, the long period over which harmful decay products are emitted -- pervade public opinion. Dr. Till blames myths that have arisen in the public mind since the events at Chernobyl and Three Mile Island. He argues that although Chernobyl was the worst accident possible for a nuclear plant, modern reactors are engineered specifically to ensure against such potentially destructive releases into the environment.
Despite nuclear energy's demonstrated potential, nuclear detractors point to such things as the elevated incidence of leukemia in communities near reprocessing plants in Europe and nuclear energy's cost inefficiencies, and they question whether such risks to human health and the environment are worth the price of further development. They argue that we should invest instead in other "clean" power-producing technologies that use renewable resources.