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Nuclear energy is the energy in the nucleus, or core, of an
atom. Atoms are tiny units that make up all matter in
the universe. Energy is what holds the nucleus together. There is
a huge amount of power in an atoms dense nucleus. In fact, the
power that holds the nucleus together is officially called the
“strong force”.
Nuclear energy can be used to create electricity, but it must first
be released from the atom. In nuclear fission, atoms are split to
release the energy.
A nuclear reactor, or power plant, is a series of machines
that can control nuclear fission to produce electricity. The
fuel that nuclear reactors use to produce nuclear fission is pellets
of the element uranium. In a nuclear reactor, atoms of uranium
are forced to break apart. As they split, the atoms release tiny
particles called fission products. Fission products cause other
uranium atoms to split, starting a chain reaction. The
energy released from this chain reaction creates heat.
The heat created by nuclear fission warms the reactors
cooling agent. A cooling agent is usually water, but some
nuclear reactors use liquid metal or molten salt. The cooling
agent, heated by nuclear fission, produces steam. The steam
turns turbines, or wheels turned by a flowing current. The turbines
drive generators, or engines that create electricity.
Rods of material called nuclear poison can adjust how
much electricity is produced. Nuclear poisons are materials,
such as a type of the element xenon, that absorb some of the
fission products created by nuclear fission. The more rods of
nuclear poison that are present during the chain reaction, the

slower and more controlled the reaction will be. Removing the
rods will allow a stronger chain reaction and create more
About 15 percent of the world’s electricity is generated by
nuclear power plants. Nations such as Lithuania, France, and
Slovakia create almost all of their electricity from nuclear power
Nuclear Food: Uranium
Uranium is the fuel most widely used to produce nuclear energy.
That’s because uranium atoms split apart relatively easily. It’s
also a very common element, found in rocks all over the
world. However, the specific type of uranium used to produce
nuclear energy, called U-235, is rare. U-235 makes up less than
one percent of the uranium in the world.
Although some of the uranium the United States uses is mined in
this country, most is imported. The U.S. gets uranium from
Australia, Canada, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Uzbekistan. Once
uranium is mined, it must be extracted from other minerals. It
must also be processed before it can be used.
Because nuclear fuel can be used to create nuclear weapons as
well as nuclear reactors, only nations that are part of the Nuclear
Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) are allowed to import uranium
or plutonium, another nuclear fuel. The treaty promotes the
peaceful use of nuclear fuel, as well as limiting the spread of
nuclear weapons.
A typical nuclear reactor uses about 59,000 metric tons (65,000
tons) of uranium every year. Complex processes allow some
uranium and plutonium to be re-enriched or recycled. This
reduces the amount of mining, extracting, and processing that
needs to be done.

Radioactive waste is mostly protective clothing worn by workers. However. in the U. Excess steam is simply recycled into the atmosphere.Nuclear Energy and People Nuclear energy produces electricity that can be used to power homes. blood diseases. These nuclei lose their energy and can affect many materials around them. Building nuclear reactors requires a high level of technology. where it does no harm as clean water vapor.S. businesses. Radioactive material is a collection of unstable atomic nuclei. Nuclear power plants produce renewable. For these reasons. Idaho. clean energy. most nuclear power plants are located in the developed world. in 1954. The steam turns back into water and can be used again to produce more electricity. They can be built in urban or rural areas. and bone decay. Russia. The first nuclear reactor to produce electricity was located near Arco. and hospitals. It is cooled down in a separate structure called a cooling tower. the byproduct of nuclear energy is radioactive material. The first nuclear power plant designed to provide energy to a community was established in Obninsk. causing burns and increasing the risk for cancers. The steam powering the turbines and generators is ultimately recycled. Radioactive material can be extremely toxic. The Experimental Breeder Reactor began powering itself in 1951. and do not radically alter the environment around them. and only the countries that have signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty can get the uranium or plutonium that is required. including organisms and the environment. Radioactive waste is what is left over from the operation of a nuclear reactor. and cloths that have been in . They do not pollute the air or produce greenhouse gases. tools. schools.

Used fuel and rods of nuclear poison are extremely radioactive. This is what happened in Chernobyl. Chernobyl Critics of nuclear energy worry that the storage facilities for radioactive waste will leak. or erode. called a plume. Water cools the fuel and insulates the outside from contact with the radioactivity. in 1986. as well as the surrounding area. Cattle and horses in the area died. Most of the radioactive fallout fell in Belarus. the pine forest dried up and died. Radioactive waste is long-lasting. The environmental impact of the Chernobyl disaster was immediate. This could lead to serious health problems for the people and organisms in the area. creating a cloud of radioactive particles that fell to the ground. Some nuclear plants store their used fuel in dry storage tanks above ground. The fallout drifted with the wind. This plume was highly radioactive. The used uranium pellets must be stored in special containers that look like large swimming pools. Radioactive material could then contaminate the soil and ground water near the with radioactive dust. A steam explosion at one of the power plants four nuclear reactors caused a fire. For kilometers around the facility. crack. All communities would have to be evacuated. Fish from the nearby Pripyat River had so many radioactivities that people could no longer eat them. Ukraine. called fallout. The fallout spread over the Chernobyl facility. Materials like clothes and tools can stay radioactive for thousands of years. The government regulates how these materials are disposed of so they don’t contaminate anything else. and the particles entered the water cycle as rain. . Radioactivity traced to Chernobyl fell as rain over Scotland and Ireland. The red color of the dead pines earned this area the nickname the Red Forest.

com/encyclopedia/nuclear-energy/ . is constantly undergoing nuclear fusion as hydrogen atoms fuse to form helium. Nuclear engineers are researching nuclear fusion. Because all life on our planet depends on the sun. Future of Nuclear Energy Nuclear reactors use fission. Nuclear power plants do not have the capability to safely and reliably produce energy from nuclear fusion. The effects of radiation poisoning only appear after many years. but the number of human victims of Chernobyl is difficult to determine.nationalgeographic. Cancers and other diseases can be very difficult to trace to a single source.000 people were relocated after the disaster. because the process will likely be safe and cost-effective. Nuclear energy can also be produced through fusion or joining (fusing) atoms together. for instance. to produce energy. It’s not clear whether the process will ever be an option for producing electricity. however.More than 100. The sun. or the splitting of atoms. Source: http://education. you could say that nuclear fusion makes life on Earth possible.

Nuclear fission happens naturally every day. and why it's a natural choice for the induced fission that nuclear power plants require. The key difference between the two plants is the method of heating the water. constantly undergoes spontaneous fission at a very slow rate. Plutonium-239 is created by bombarding U-238 with neutrons.Imagine following a volt of electricity back through the wall socket. all the way through miles of power lines to the nuclear reactor that generated it. a common occurrence in a nuclear reactor. when one atom splits into two and releases energy. Another fissionable material is plutonium-239. power plants that depend on atomic energy don't operate that differently from a typical coal-burning power plant. there were 443 operating nuclear power reactors spread across the planet in 47 different countries [source: WNA]. Uranium is a common element on Earth and has existed since the planet formed. which drives a turbine generator. Uranium. 2011. Welcome to the nuclear reactor core. Next. for example. preventing it from overheating and melting down. While there are several varieties of . Both heat water into pressurized steam. Uranium-235 isn't the only possible fuel for a power plant. While older plants burn fossil fuels. you'd find the jet of steam that turns the turbine and finally the radioactive uranium bundle that heats water into steam. nuclear plants depend on the heat that occurs during nuclear fission. You'd encounter the generator that produces the spark and the turbine that turns it. Despite all the cosmic energy that the word "nuclear" invokes. As of March 1. This is why the element emits radiation. The water in the reactor also serves as a coolant for the radioactive material.

So many. scientists have to first enrich a sample of uranium so that it contains 2 to 3 percent more U-235. Threepercent enrichment is sufficient for nuclear power plants.uranium. As soon as the nucleus captures the neutron. become unstable and split immediately. in fact. It's also one of the few elements that can undergo induced fission. or two neutrons and two protons bound together. The decay of a single U-235 atom releases approximately 200 MeV (million electron volts). Inside a Nuclear Power Plant . That may not seem like much. or radiation made of high-energy photons. The process of capturing the neutron and splitting happens very quickly.45 kilograms) of uranium. but there are lots of uranium atoms in a pound (0. U-235 decays naturally by alpha radiation: It throws off an alpha particle. uranium-235 (U-235) is the one most important to the production of both nuclear power and nuclear bombs. But for all of this to work. The splitting of an atom releases an incredible amount of heat and gamma radiation. it splits into two lighter atoms and throws off two or three new neutrons (the number of ejected neutrons depends on how the U-235 atom splits). Fire a free neutron into a U-235 nucleus and the nucleus will absorb the neutron. too. but weapons-grade uranium is composed of at least 90 percent U235. that a pound of highly enriched uranium as used to power a nuclear submarine is equal to about a million gallons of gasoline. The two atoms that result from the fission later release beta radiation (superfast electrons) and gamma radiation of their own.

5centimeter-long) pellets. and the rods are collected together into bundles. there's very little difference between a nuclear power plant and a coal-fired or oil-fired power . the coolant fluid in contact with the reactor core is gas (carbon dioxide) or liquid metal (sodium. Next. in some reactors. To prevent overheating. Once you get past the reactor itself. In some nuclear power plants.In order to turn nuclear fission into electrical energy. Raising and lowering the control rods allow operators to control the rate of the nuclear reaction. Left to its own devices. intermediate heat exchanger to convert another loop of water to steam. control rods made of a material that absorbs neutrons are inserted into the uranium bundle using a mechanism that can raise or lower them. To reduce heat. the pellets are arranged into long rods. the control rods are lifted out of the uranium bundle (thus absorbing fewer neutrons). which spins a generator to produce power. these types of reactors allow the core to be operated at higher temperatures. each with approximately the same diameter as a dime. potassium). they are lowered into the uranium bundle. The steam drives a turbine. the steam from the reactor goes through a secondary. It heats the water and turns it to steam. The advantage to this design is that the radioactive water/steam never contacts the turbine. The rods can also be lowered completely into the uranium bundle to shut the reactor down in the event of an accident or to change the fuel. the uranium would eventually overheat and melt. which drives the turbine. The water acts as a coolant. Enriched uranium typically is formed into inch-long (2. nuclear power plant operators have to control the energy given off by the enriched uranium and allow it to heat water into steam. The uranium bundle acts as an extremely high-energy source of heat. The bundles are submerged in water inside a pressure vessel. Humans have been harnessing the expansion of water into steam for hundreds of years. When an operator wants the uranium core to produce more heat. Also.

CO2 emissions are minimal. as well as the equipment plant workers use to refuel and maintain the reactor. These secondary containment structures are necessary to prevent the escape of radiation/radioactive steam in the event of an accident. the power produced by the world's nuclear plants would normally produce 2 billion metric tons of CO2 per year if they depended on fossil fuels. Pros and Cons of Nuclear Power What's nuclear power's biggest advantage? It doesn't depend on fossil fuels and isn't affected by fluctuating oil and gas prices. That liner. except for the source of the heat used to create steam. extra precautions are required. In fact. A concrete liner typically houses the reactor's pressure vessel and acts as a radiation shield. This concrete structure is designed to be strong enough to survive the kind of massive damage that might result from earthquakes or a crashing jet airliner. Plus. Nuclear fission produces roughly a million times more energy per unit weight than fossil fuel alternatives [source: Helman]. a properly functioning nuclear power plant actually releases fewer radioactivities into the atmosphere than a coal-fired power plant [source: Hvistendahl]. This vessel contains the reactor core. Coal and natural gas power plants emit carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. in turn. The steel containment vessel serves as a barrier to prevent leakage of any radioactive gases or fluids from the plant. all this comes with a far lighter fuel requirement. An outer concrete building serves as the final layer. With nuclear power plants. . which contributes to climate change. protecting the steel containment vessel. But as that source can emit harmful levels of radiation. According to the Nuclear Energy Institute. is housed within a much larger steel containment vessel.plant.

but this process takes tens of thousands of years. And once the fuel is spent. the combined total climbs to roughly 2. All of this waste emits radiation and heat. It can also prove lethal to nearby life forms. classified as high-level radioactive waste. you can't just throw it in the city dump. It's still radioactive and potentially deadly. All of these services and added materials cost money -. the nuclear industry lets waste cool for years before mixing it with glass and storing it in massive cooled. Even low-level radioactive waste requires centuries to reach acceptable levels. Historically.And then there are the negatives. monitored and guarded to prevent the materials from falling into the wrong hands. This waste has to be maintained. Over time. mining and purifying uranium hasn't been a very clean process. Currently. meaning that it will eventually corrode any container that holds it. nuclear power plants produce a great deal of low-level radioactive waste in the form of radiated parts and equipment. spent nuclear fuel decays to safe radioactive levels. . a nuclear power plant annually generates 20 metric tons of used nuclear fuel. As if this weren't bad enough. When you take into account every nuclear plant on Earth. Even transporting nuclear fuel to and from plants poses a contamination risk. On average. concrete structures.000 metric tons a year [source: NEI].on top of the high costs required to build a plant.

uranium-233. often termed a "slow neutron" or a "thermal neutron". then there will be a net yield of energy because the sum of the masses of the fragments will be less than the mass of the uranium nucleus. and thorium-232. Other fissionable isotopes which can be induced to fission by slow neutrons are plutonium-239.Nuclear Fission If a massive nucleus like uranium-235 breaks apart (fissions). . fusion will yield energy. The fission of U-235 in reactors is triggered by the absorption of a low energy neutron. then the nuclear particles will be more tightly bound than they were in the uranium nucleus. and that decrease in mass comes off in the form of energy according to the Einstein equation. For elements lighter than iron. If the mass of the fragments is equal to or greater than that of iron at the peak of the binding energy curve.

27% U-238. A single fission event can yield over 200 million times the energy of the neutron which triggered it! Uranium Fuel Natural uranium is composed of 0. 99. so neutrons must be slowed down by moderation to increase their capture probability in fission reactors. a slow neutron can be captured by a uranium235 nucleus.0055% U-234. rendering it unstable toward nuclear fission.72% U-235 (the fissionable isotope). and a trace quantity 0.72% U-235 is not sufficient to produce a self-sustaining critical . A fast neutron will not be captured.Uranium-235 Fission In one of the most remarkable phenomena in nature. The 0.

5-3. the fuel must be enriched to 2. there are other isotopes which can be induced to fission by neutron bombardment. Fissionable Isotopes While uranium-235 is the naturally occurring fissionable isotope. is not fissionable by slow neutrons. Some of the nuclear reactors at Hanford. Uranium238. but it is not useful as a nuclear fuel source. so could conceivably be used as a nuclear fuel. For light-water reactors. Washington and the Savannah-River Plant (SC) are designed for the production of bomb-grade plutonium-239. . style light-water reactors. After reduction.chain reaction in U. Even with the necessity of enrichment.5% U-235. Uranium is found as uranium oxide which when purified has a rich yellow color and is called "yellowcake". it still takes only about 3 kg of natural uranium to supply the energy needs of one American for a year. Plutonium-239 can be produced by "breeding" it from uranium-238. Thorium-232 is fissionable. and both it and uranium-235 have been used to make nuclear fission bombs. U-238 has a small probability for spontaneous fission and also a small probability of fission when bombarded with fast neutrons. Plutonium-239 is also fissionable by bombardment with slow neutrons. although it is used in Canadian CANDU reactors. which makes up 99.3% of natural uranium.S. The only other isotope which is known to undergo fission upon slow-neutron bombardment is uranium-233. the uranium must go through an isotope enrichment process.

This binding energy can be calculated from the Einstein relationship: Nuclear binding energy = Δmc2 For the alpha particle Δm= 0.3 MeV. The difference is a measure of the nuclear binding energy which holds the nucleus together. The enormity of the nuclear binding energy can perhaps be better appreciated by comparing it to the binding energy of an electron in an atom. The comparison of the alpha particle binding energy with the binding energy of the electron in a hydrogen atom is shown below.0304 u which gives a binding energy of 28.Nuclear Binding Energy Nuclei are made up of protons and neutron. The nuclear binding energies are on the order of a million times greater than the electron binding energies of atoms. . but the mass of a nucleus is always less than the sum of the individual masses of the protons and neutrons which constitute it.


Fission and fusion can yield energy Nuclear Binding Energy Curve The binding energy curve is obtained by dividing the total nuclear binding energy by the number of nucleons. perhaps in the visible light region. Whereas an atomic transition might emit a photon in the range of a few electron volts. The fact that there is a peak in the binding energy curve in the region of stability near iron means that either the breakup of heavier nuclei (fission) or the combining of lighter nuclei (fusion) will yield nuclei which are more tightly bound (less mass per nucleon). nuclear transitions can emit gamma-rays with quantum energies in the MeV range. The iron limit . The binding energies of nucleons are in the range of millions of electron volts compared to tens of eV for atomic electrons.

Iron-56 is abundant in stellar processes. Fission and Fusion Yields Deuterium-tritium fusion and uranium-235 fission are compared in terms of energy yield.8 MeV. and with a binding energy per nucleon of 8. Its average binding energy per nucleon is exceeded only by 58Fe and 62Ni. the nickel isotope being the most tightly bound of the nuclides. it is the third most tightly bound of the nuclides. Both the single event energy and the energy per kilogram of fuel are compared. Then they expressed in . since the fusion of iron would subtract energy rather than provide it.The buildup of heavier elements in the nuclear fusion processes in stars is limited to elements below iron.

energy use: 5 x 10 11 joules.terms of a nominal per capita U. but it gives a basis for comparison.S. This figure is dated and probably high. not the energy delivered to a consumer. . The values above are the total energy yield.

4 fast neutrons per fission. These neutrons are slowed down or "moderated" by the water between fuel rods. increasing the cross-section for neutron capture and fission by a U-235 nucleus in a neighboring fuel rod.S. . Light water (ordinary water) is used as the moderator in U.Light Water Reactors The nuclear fission reactors used in the United States for electric power production are classified as "light water reactors" in contrast to the "heavy water reactors" used in Canada. The use of ordinary water makes it necessary to do a certain amount of enrichment of the uranium fuel before the necessary criticality of the reactor can be maintained. The two varieties of the light water reactor are the pressurized water reactor (PWR) and boiling water reactor (BWR). The fission of a U-235 nucleus in one fuel rod releases an average of 2. reactors as well as the cooling agent and the means by which heat is removed to produce steam for turning the turbines of the electric generators.

light water reactors.Uranium Enrichment Natural uranium is only 0. The compound uranium hexafluoride was produced and allowed to diffuse through thousands of stages of porous material. Uranium Diffusion Enrichment To produce the highly enriched uranium-235 needed for the development of nuclear weapons. Tennessee. the weapons applications required enrichment to over 90% . Two other massive plants for uranium enrichment were built at Paducah. The other 99. but modern efforts are directed toward laser enrichment procedures. while the heavy water Canadian reactors typically use natural uranium. a huge diffusion plant was built during World War II at Oak Ridge.S.7% of natural uranium ore to about 3% U235.5-3. There have been tests of centrifugal separators. Enrichment to 15-30% is typical for breeder reactors. While electric power reactors require only enrichment from the 0.3% is U-238 which is not fissionable. OH after the war.7% U-235. The uranium fuel for fission reactors will not make a bomb. Uranium enrichment has historically been accomplished by making the compound uranium hexaflouride and diffusing it through a long pathway of porous material (like kilometers!) and making use of the slightly higher diffusion rate of the lighter U235 compound.5% U-235 for use in U. it still takes only about 3 kg of natural uranium to supply the energy needs of one American for a year. Even with the necessity of enrichment. the fissionable isotope. it takes enrichment to over 90% to obtain the fast chain reaction necessary for weapons applications. making use of the fact that the slightly lighter U-235 compound would diffuse faster than the U-238 compound. KY and Portsmouth. The uranium is usually enriched to 2.

Heavy water (D2O) is 10% heavier than ordinary water and has a neutron moderating ratio 80 times higher than ordinary water. Heavy Water Reactors Nuclear fission reactors used in Canada use heavy water as the moderator in their reactors.U-235. The Canadian style reactors are commonly called CANDU reactors. . Part of the enriched uranium was used to breed plutonium239 for the more widely used plutonium devices. Since the deuterium in heavy water is slightly more effective in slowing down the neutrons from the fission reactions. 32 of the 438 nuclear reactors in operation around the world were of CANDU type. As of January 2002. the uranium fuel needs no enrichment and can be used as mined.