Nuclear energy is derived from the core of an atom, the nucleus, which holds a tremendous amount of energy known as the “strong force.” This force is responsible for keeping the nucleus together. During the process of nuclear fission, atoms are split apart, releasing this energy.
Nuclear fission (Graphic: A. Vargas/IAEA)
Nuclear energy is also created through fusion, where atoms join together. A great example of this is the Sun, which constantly undergoes nuclear fusion as hydrogen atoms fuse to form helium. Because life on Earth depends on the Sun, we can say that nuclear fusion is what makes life possible.
Though the word “nuclear” may sound complex, power plants using atomic energy function quite similarly to regular coal-burning power plants. Both use heated water to create pressurized steam that drives a turbine generator. The main distinction lies in how they heat the water. Coal plants burn fossil fuels, while nuclear plants rely on the heat produced during nuclear fission, where one atom splits into two and releases energy.
In a nuclear reactor, bundles of uranium rods are placed inside a huge, pressurized water tank. When the reactor operates, fast-moving particles called neutrons hit the uranium atoms, making them split. This splitting releases a large amount of energy and additional neutrons. These new neutrons then continue to split other uranium atoms, starting a chain reaction. The energy produced heats up the water, which is sent to a steam generator through pipes.
Nuclear power reactor
To prevent the power plant from overheating, control rods made of a neutron-absorbing material, like xenon, are lowered into the reactor. The reactor itself is enclosed in a sturdy concrete shield, which stops radiation from escaping into the environment.
The steam used to power generators is recycled in the process. It goes through a cooling tower where it cools down and transforms back into water. This water can be reused to generate more electricity. Any extra steam is released harmlessly into the atmosphere as clean water vapor.
The most common fuel for producing nuclear energy is uranium. This is because uranium atoms split apart quite easily. It’s also a widespread element found in rocks all around the world. However, the type of uranium used for nuclear energy, called U-235, is rare. U-235 makes up less than one percent of all the uranium in the world.
In a year, a regular nuclear reactor utilizes approximately 200 tons of uranium. However, through complex processes, some uranium can be re-enriched or recycled. This recycling helps decrease the amount of mining, extracting, and processing required in the overall process.
The Doel Nuclear Power Station, Belgium
Nuclear power plants offer a source of renewable and clean energy. They don’t pollute the air or release greenhouse gasses, making them environmentally friendly. Additionally, they can be constructed in various locations, whether in urban or rural areas, without causing significant changes to the surrounding environment.
However, the nuclear industry faces a significant challenge concerning the radioactive waste it generates. Some of this waste remains hazardous and radioactive for hundreds of thousands of years. To manage high-level waste, it is first cooled in water for several years and then mixed into molten glass. This glass mixture is then poured into sturdy steel containers, which are stored in a building lined with concrete.
Share of electricity production from nuclear, 2022
The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) allows only countries that are part of it to import uranium or plutonium, which are used in both nuclear weapons and nuclear reactors. This treaty encourages the peaceful use of nuclear fuel while restricting the spread of nuclear weapons.
As of 2023, approximately 450 nuclear power reactors operate in 50 countries, contributing to about 10 percent of the world’s electricity, as reported by the World Nuclear Association.
Words of wisdom
“The measure of a man is what he does with power.” —Plato
“We all die. The goal isn’t to live forever, the goal is to create something that will.” —Chuck Palahniuk
“Unexpressed emotions will never die. They are buried alive and will come forth later in uglier ways.” —Sigmund Freud
“Men are driven by two principal impulses, either by love or by fear.” —Niccolo Machiavelli