NUCLEAR ENERGY (FISSION)
Nuclear energy is an existing technology capable of supplying a significant amount of the energy now being generated by burning fossil fuels. It will not contribute to the greenhouse effect or spew the acids so destructive to the environment into the atmosphere. It accounts for nearly 20 percent of the energy used to generate electricity in the United States today, compared to the 70 percent that fossil fuels supply. In France, it is the other way around, with nuclear energy supplying 75 percent of that country's electricity.
To understand why the United States is so different, consider the problems that the generation of nuclear energy create. To understand these, we have to have some notion as to how this energy is produced. We have already described the structure of atomic nuclei; they consist of two types of particles: positively-charged protons and electrically-neutral neutrons, tightly bound together, each almost 2000 times as massive as an electron.
Different elements have different numbers of protons in the nucleus. The lightest nucleus, hydrogen, consists of a single proton. The next lightest stable nucleus, deuterium, heavy hydrogen, consists of one proton and one neutron. Going up the scale, the normal helium nucleus (sometimes called an alpha particle) has two protons and two neutrons. Still ascending, normal lithium has three protons and three neutrons. The heaviest naturally occurring nucleus, uranium, consists of 92 protons and 146 neutrons. This nucleus is designated as uranium 238, the number 238 referring to the total number of parti