nuclear energy, the energy stored in the nucleus of an atom and released through fission, fusion, or radioactivity. In these processes a small amount of mass is converted to energy according to the relationship E = mc2, where E is energy, m is mass, and c is the speed of light (see relativity). The most pressing problems concerning nuclear energy are the possibility of an accident or systems failure at a nuclear reactor or fuel plant, such as those which occurred at Three Mile Island (1979), Chernobyl (1986), and Fukushima (2011), and the potential threat to the continued existence of the human race posed by nuclear weapons (see disarmament, nuclear).
The release of nuclear energy is associated with changes from less stable to more stable nuclei and produces far more energy for a given mass of fuel than any other source of energy. In fission processes, a fissionable nucleus absorbs a neutron, becomes unstable, and splits into two nearly equal nuclei. In fusion processes, two nuclei combine to form a single, heavier nucleus. The most stable nuclei—those with the highest binding energies per nucleon holding their components together—are in the middle range of atomic weights, with the maximum stability at weights near 60. Thus, fission, which produces two lighter fragments, occurs for very heavy nuclei, while fusion occurs for the lightest nuclei.
The process of nuclear fission was discovered in 1938 by Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann and was explained in early 1939 by Lise Meitner and Otto Frisch. The fissionable isotope of uranium, U-235, can be split by bombarding it with a slow, or thermal, neutron. (Slow neutrons are called "thermal" because their average kinetic energies are about the same as those of the molecules of air at ordinary temperatures.) The atomic numbers of the nuclei resulting from the fission add up to 92, which is the atomic number of uranium. A number of pairs of product nuclei are possible, with the most frequently produced fragments being krypton and barium.
Since this reaction also releases an average of 2.5 neutrons, a chain reaction is possible, provided at least one neutron per fission is captured by another nucleus and causes a second fission. In an atomic bomb, the number is greater than 1 and the reaction increases rapidly to an explosion. In a nuclear reactor, where the chain reaction is controlled, the number of neutrons producing additional fission must be exactly 1.0 in order to maintain a steady flow of energy.
Uranium-235, which occurs naturally as one part in 140 in a natural mixture of uranium isotopes, is not the only material fissionable by thermal neutrons. Uranium-233 and plutonium-239 can also be used but must be produced artificially. Uranium-233 is produced from thorium-232, which absorbs a neutron and then undergoes beta decay (the loss of an electron). Plutonium-239 is produced in a similar manner from uranium-238, which is the most common isotope of natural uranium. The average energy released by the fission of uranium-235 is 200 million electron volts, and that released by uranium-233 and plutonium-239 is comparable. Fission can also occur spontaneously, but the time required for a heavy nucleus to decay spontaneously by fission (10 million billion years in the case of uranium-238) is so long that induced fission by thermal neutrons is the only practical application of nuclear fission. However, spontaneous fission of uranium can be used in the dating of very old rock samples.
The development of nuclear energy from fission reactions began with the program to produce atomic weapons in the United States. Early work was carried out at several universities, and the first sustained nuclear chain reaction was achieved at the Univ. of Chicago in 1942 by a group under Enrico Fermi. Later the weapons themselves were developed at Los Alamos, N.Mex., under the direction of J. Robert Oppenheimer (see Manhattan Project).
Nuclear fusion, although it was known theoretically in the 1930s as the process by which the sun and most other stars radiate their great output of energy, was not achieved by scientists until the 1950s. Fusion reactions are also known as thermonuclear reactions because the temperatures required to initiate them are more than 1,000,000°C. In the hydrogen bomb, such temperatures are provided by the detonation of a fission bomb. The energy released during fusion is even greater than that released during fission. Moreover, the fuel for fusion reactions, isotopes of hydrogen, is readily available in large amounts, and there is no release of radioactive byproducts.
In stars ordinary hydrogen, whose nucleus consists of a single proton, is the fuel for the reaction and is fused to form helium through a complex cycle of reactions (see nucleosynthesis). This reaction takes place too slowly, however, to be of practical use on the earth. The heavier isotopes of hydrogen—deuterium and tritium—have much faster fusion reactions.
For sustained, controlled fusion reactions, a fission bomb obviously cannot be used to trigger the reaction. The difficulties of controlled fusion center on the containment of the nuclear fuel at the extremely high temperatures necessary for fusion for a time long enough to allow the reaction to take place. For deuterium-tritium fusion, this time is about 0.1 sec. At such temperatures the fuel is no longer in one of the ordinary states of matter but is instead a plasma, consisting of a mixture of electrons and charged atoms. Obviously, no solid container could hold such a hot mixture; therefore, containment attempts have been based on the electrical and magnetic properties of a plasma, using magnetic fields to form a "magnetic bottle." In 1994 U.S. researchers achieved a fusion reaction that lasted about a second and generated 10.7 million watts, using deuterium and tritium in a magnetically confined plasma. The use of tritium lowers the temperature required and increases the rate of the reaction, but it also increases the release of radioactive neutrons. Another method uses laser beams aimed at tiny pellets of fusion fuel to create the necessary heat and pressure to initiate fusion.
If practical controlled fusion is achieved, it could have great advantages over fission as a source of energy. Deuterium is relatively easy to obtain, since it constitutes a small percentage of the hydrogen in water and can be separated by electrolysis, in contrast to the complex and expensive methods required to extract uranium-235 from its sources. In 2007 China, the European Union, India, Japan, Russia, South Korea, and the United States formally established the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) Organization to build an experimental fusion reactor at Cadarache in S France that would use the "magnetic bottle" approach. The Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory's National Ignition Facility, based in Livermore, Calif., and dedicated in 2009, is exploring the use of high-energy lasers focused on hydrogen fuel to achieve nuclear fusion.
See H. Foreman, ed., Nuclear Power and the Public (1970); R. C. Lewis, Nuclear Power Rebellion: Citizen vs. the Atomic Industrial Establishment (1972); C. K. Ebinger, International Politics of Nuclear Energy (1978); S. Glasstone, Sourcebook on Atomic Energy (1979); G. S. Bauer and A. McDonald, ed., Nuclear Technologies in a Sustainable Energy System (1983); G. H. Clarfield and W. W. Wiecek, Nuclear America (1984).