Nuclear Power


Producing energy from a nuclear power plant is very complicated. The process of
nuclear energy involves the fission of atoms, the release of energy from fission
as heat, and the transfer of heat to electricity in power plants.

The process of splitting the atom is called nuclear fission. Fission can take
place in many different kinds of atoms. This explanation uses Uranium - 235,
the atom most commonly used in nuclear reactors. The Uranium atom has many
protons, thus making it unstable. Since the nucleus of the atom is so unstable
it wants to split itself apart, causing a spontaneous fission. When the nuclei
of a Uranium atom splits apart, it splits into two atoms. Commonly the nucleus
splits into Barium and Krypton; however, it can split into any two atoms as long
as the number of protons equals the original amount of the protons found in the
Uranium. In addition, a mass amount of energy is released along with two or
three neutrons. It is these neutrons that can begin a chain reaction, each
neutron that is given off could collide with another Uranium atom splitting it
apart. Each of these fissioning atoms releases a very large amount of energy,
and some more neutrons.

This process continues causing a chain reaction withut any outside assistance,
and the Uranium has "gone critical"(Martindale, 794-195). This chain reaction
is the basis for how nuclear power is made.

The amount of the energy that is given off in nuclear fission is astronomical.
To equal the amount of energy given off when splitting some uranium the size of
a golf ball, one would have to burn approximately twenty-five train cars full of
coal. Presently, the planet contains twenty-five times more nuclear fuel
compared to fossil fuel. On average, an atomic power plant can produce half a
million kilowatts of power. As a comparison, a hair dryer takes about one
kilowatt (Jenny, 1-2).

The producing of energy from nuclear fission is very similar to using a very
common fossil fuel boiler. The difference lies in the reactor, where the heat
is generated by fissioning material. The most common of reactors is the
pressurized water reactor; however, there are many other types.

The pressurized water reactor is the most common reactor in the United States.
The reactor of a nuclear power plant is where the fissioning takes place. The
Uranium is contained in fuel rods, each rod is sealed so no contamination occurs.
Many of these rods are then contained in a fuel assembly. All the fuel
assemblies are separated by control rods. The control rods limit the amount of
fission taking place by the use of Boron, an element that absorbs neutrons. If
the control rod is inserted, it collects the neutrons from the fissioning atoms,
which slows down or stops fission taking place in the reactor. There commonly
are 300 to 600 fuel assemblies in one reactor (Michio, 31). Surrounding all of
the fuel assemblies is a moderator, water in most cases. The moderator is a
substance that is used to slow down the neutrons. The slower the neutrons
travel, the more likely they will strike the nucleus of an atom. The process
begins when a spontaneous fission takes place and starts the chain reaction. The
control rods are the inserted to keep the rate of fission constant, this is
called "going critical". As the fission takes place in the fuel assemblies, the
kinetic energy (heat) given off is absorbed by the water. The water is under
pressure so it will never boil. The water becomes super heated, sometimes above
300º C, and is then pumped into a heat exchanger. The heat exchanger runs water,
at normal pressure, through pipes in the super heated water, boiling the water
at normal pressure vigorously. That boiling water quickly turns to steam which
is then used to turn massive generators. The generators then turn the kinetic
energy into electricity (Weiss, 26). The steam then is cooled down and returned
to the heat exchanger so it will boil again. If there is no need to use the
water again, it is pumped into a nearby lake or river. In turn, if more water
is needed, it is pumped from a nearby lake or river. If the water in the
reactor becomes too hot, it is vented into a cooling tower where the water is
condensed to steam and released into the air. Then cool water from a lake or
river is pumped into the reactor to cool it down.

There are many other ways of utilizing nuclear fission for energy. Of these,
the more popular types are the