Nuclear power is one of the primary sources of electricity in the United States and in many countries around the world. According to the Energy Information Administration, the United States receives about 19% of its electricity from nuclear power plants. Many large naval vessels, specifically aircraft carriers and submarines, have nuclear propulsion systems. While nuclear power does have its controversies, it is a far cleaner energy technology than fossil fuel plants.
How Nuclear Power Works
Nuclear power is based on the extraction of energy from atoms, based on Einstein’s equation E = mc^2, where E is the extracted energy, m is the mass of the fuel material being tapped, and c is the speed of light. As a result, the potential energy within an atom, or even a small amount of fuel material, is immense.
The primary mode of creating nuclear power is through fission. In the fission process, a fuel atom is struck by a neutron, and the atom splits into two parts. The atom also releases energy during this process in the form of gamma radiation, and it also sheds some of its own neutrons. These additional neutrons strike other fuel atoms, creating a chain reaction process. The radiation is used to heat the water in a cooling system. The water is transported to another part of the plant to power conventional steam turbines and returned to the reactor to continue the cooling process.
The primary fuel for modern nuclear reactors is uranium. Uranium is an abundant element in the earth’s crust, making it a relatively inexpensive fuel. Uranium ore is mined and processed before it is formed into fuel rods, and the degree of enrichment depends on the specific use for the fuel. Nuclear naval vessels such as submarines require more highly enriched uranium fuel in order to accommodate the compact reactor design that is required. However, this additional processing is not cost-effective for standard electricity generation plants.
As part of the nuclear fission process, waste materials are developed. This waste can include leftover uranium, as well as significant amounts of plutonium and curium. These elements contribute to the long term radiation of the waste, while fission products, the atoms created after the uranium atoms were split, contribute to short term radiation.
Some nuclear waste can be reprocessed, allowing much of the fuel to be reused. All other radioactive waste must be stored in such a way to protect people and the environment from being exposed to the radiation. For short term storage, spent fuel is stored in water tanks on the nuclear plant site. Long term storage requires placing the spent fuel into shielded bunkers designed to protect the waste for thousands of years.
Nuclear power provides a clean non-carbon-emitting alternative to coal and fossil fuel power plants. However, the issue of handling the waste from the nuclear power process needs to be addressed before nuclear power becomes more widely accepted.
Energy Information Administration website
DOE Fundamentals Handbook: Nuclear Physics and Reactor Theory – DOE website