Nuclear Power

Energy produced from nuclear power plants is the fastest growing source of energy in the world. Nuclear power generates electricity from the heat or steam that is produced when uranium-235 atoms are bombarded with neutrons, causing nuclear fission. Heavy water serves as the moderator for splitting uranium atoms.

Nuclear power plants operate in a very similar fashion to plants that burn fossils fuels such as coal or oil, except that in a nuclear reactor, the heat is produced by a chain reaction. Atoms are built and shaped like a miniature solar system; the center of the atom contains the nucleus and electrons orbit around it. The nucleus consists of neutrons and protons that are very tightly packed together. Uranium, the heaviest natural element known to man, contains 92 protons.

It is only through great force that the nucleus of an atom is held intact. This force is the strongest found in nature. When a nucleus is bombarded with a neutron, the nucleus can be split. Uranium is a good element for splitting because its atoms are rather large and the force that holds it together is a bit weak. In nuclear reactors, neutrons crash into uranium atoms, causing them to split or divide. This division causes the release of neutrons from the uranium, which then collide with other atoms, thus causing a chain reaction.

The chain reaction is constrained by the use of control rods that absorb the neutrons. The fission of the atoms releases energy that heats water in the core of the reactor to a temperature of 520 degrees Fahrenheit. This hot water is ultimately used to power turbines, which are connected to the generators that produce electricity. These generators and turbines are the same as those used in conventional power plants.

Once the steam has been used to power the turbines, it is cooled off so that it will recondense into water. Many nuclear power plants are built close to lakes, rivers or oceans, and utilize that water to cool the steam down. Those plants not located near water use hourglass-shaped water towers or cooling towers to cool down the water. Two units of waste heat from a nuclear power plant are sent into the environment for every unit of electricity that is produced.

Nuclear power has several advantages. It is clean and does not cause pollution since it produces no smoke or carbon dioxide. Nuclear power is efficient and can produce vast amounts of energy relatively cheaply. Moreover, nuclear power is reliable and produces hardly any waste or by-products.

On the other hand, there are potential dangers to using nuclear power. The nuclear waste that is produced cannot be discarded. It must be sealed and buried for thousands of years until it is no longer radioactive. Also, if the plant malfunctions and highly contaminated water used as a coolant is released into the atmosphere or leaked into surrounding ground or water systems, there can be dire environmental consequences. Finally, building and maintaining nuclear power plants is very expensive.

In 1979, a breakdown at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in Pennsylvania caused a severe reactor core meltdown. In 1986, a similar disaster took place at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant and huge amounts of radioactivity were released into the atmosphere. In March 2011, a powerful earthquake and subsequent tsunami caused major damage to Japan's Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear power plant and several of its reactors. As a result, water drained out of the reactor core and it was impossible to control the temperature inside the core. The core overheated and a partial nuclear meltdown occurred.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

Nuclear America: Military and Civilian Nuclear Power in the United States, 1940-1980
Gerard H. Clarfield; William M. Wiecek.
Harper & Row, 1984
The Army's Nuclear Power Program: The Evolution of a Support Agency
Lawrence H. Suid.
Greenwood Press, 1990
Civilian Nuclear Power: Economic Issues and Policy Formation
Phillp Mullenbach.
Twentieth Century Fund, 1963
The Prospects of Nuclear Power and Technology
Gerald Wendt.
D. Van Nostrand, 1957
Nuclear Ethics
Joseph S. Nye Jr.
Free Press, 1986
From Nuclear Military Strategy to a World without War: A History and a Proposal
Roger Hilsman.
Praeger Publishers, 1999
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