How Does Nuclear Energy Work?

Top down view of a Pulstar2 nuclear reactor. Image by Zereshk.

Top down view of a Pulstar2 nuclear reactor. Image by Zereshk. License: GNU FDL

Nuclear energy has been around for many years now and has become wide spread especially in Europe. There is still a very strong stigma attached to it because of chernobyl and the scare factor involved over radioactivity but nuclear energy has come a long way. Not only has it had a good safety track record but advances in waste control have made it a lot cleaner as well. There are two primary topics of nuclear energy that I’d like to cover here and they are the only ones you’ll probably ever care to know about anyway. These are fusion, and fission.

Nuclear Fusion

Fusion between deuterium and tritium creates helium-4. This frees a neutron releasing 17.59 MeV energy.

Nuclear fusion is a process where multiple similarly charged atomic nuclei join one another resulting in a heavier whole element. The fusion of two nuclei with a mass that is lower than iron will usually release energy while heavier nuclei than iron will end up absorbing energy. Using hydrogen fusion as an example two protons will be brought so close that their mutual repulsion due to charge will be overcome by the nuclear force resulting in a release of energy during bonding. Nuclear fusion has been artificially created in labs but not controlled to the same extent as nuclear fission. This means it is still an experimental although extremely promissing energy source.

Nuclear Fission

Slow neutron gets absorbed by the uranium-235 nucleus. This splits into faster lighter elements and 3 free neutrons. The chain reaction repeats.

Nuclear fission is a reaction during which the nucleus of one atom splits into multiple smaller parts including subatomic particles like neutrons and lighter nuclei. These may produce photons eventually. Fission using heavier elements results in an exothermic reactions which will release large amounts of energy in the form of electromagnetic and kinetic energy. This is known as nuclear transmutation since the original atom is not the same as when the process started. These free nutrons go on to release energy from more nuclear fuel (usually uranium-235) which in turn releases more free neutrons. This chain reaction allows for a controlled rate of energy production using nuclear fission. In an uncontrolled setting though you get a fission explosion or nuclear bomb.

Nuclear fission has been in use for many years now with only a handful of safety violations. However, the potential for damage from improper operations or unsafe handling of nuclear energy are enormous. This is why there is so much resistance to their construction in a lot of places. Check out these images below for a graphical explaination of how nuclear fission and fusion work.

Nuclear energy has been shown to work quite well with waste products being manageable in a safe way. However, sometimes waste does find its way into the water and lots of environmental concerns exist. Certain countries like Somalia claim that countries using nuclear energy are dumping the waste into their rivers and off their shores.



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