The energy that can be obtained through nuclear fission is both cost competitive and carbon-free. Nuclear power plants have become a good alternative for delivering a stable baseline of energy. Where does this energy really come from and how does it end up as electricity in your house?
What is Nuclear Energy?
In a nuclear reactor, metal rods with enriched uranium pellets inside are placed into bundles creating a fuel assembly. These bundles are submerged into water inside a pressurized vessel.
A neutron is a subatomic particle that carries no electric charge. It can therefore be fired at the enriched uranium’s nucleus without being repelled. Instead it binds to the nucleus making it unstable. The nucleus splits into two smaller atoms.
This is where Albert Einstein’s formula, E = mc², comes into the picture. The formula states the relation between energy and mass. When enriched uranium is split into two smaller atoms, some of the initial mass is transformed into vast amounts of energy.
In other words, the energy produced by a nuclear reaction comes from a total loss of matter.
A nuclear fission reaction also releases two or three new neutrons and those neutrons might then be free to break apart further atoms.
The energy released in a chain reaction of splitting atoms is used to boil water to steam. How does nuclear energy produce electricity? The way a nuclear power plant generates electricity from the heat energy is very similar to the way fossil fueled power plants to generate electricity.
The steam turns a turbine and a generator that sits on the turbine produces electricity with the principles of induction, transforming mechanical to electrical energy.
Another concern is nuclear waste. In the best-case scenario it remains radioactive for several hundred years. How to store nuclear waste in a safe way is therefore problematic.
How Safe Is Nuclear Energy?
There are many disadvantages of harnessing nuclear energy. Safety is by far one of the most important ones. The debate of whether the benefits of nuclear energy outweigh potential safety issues is still ongoing.
A nuclear power plant can never be deemed failure-proof. Accidents such as the Chernobyl disaster (1986) and the more recent nuclear meltdowns in Japan (2011) have enormous consequences for both human beings and nature.
What Countries Use Nuclear Energy?
Nuclear power plants generate carbon-free electricity in 30 countries all over the world. The amount of harnessed nuclear energy in the United States is on top with a capacity of 101.229 megawatt, followed by France and Japan (May 2011).
The amount of energy produced by nuclear power plants in France is 63.236 megawatt, more than 75% of the entire electricity production.
If you want a full overview of what countries uses nuclear energy go to Wikipedia.
The Future of Nuclear Energy
I will not elaborate on the future of nuclear energy, because frankly I could’ve convinced you one or the other way easily. Renewable and nuclear energy both have many good arguments to back them up, and both also have many disadvantages.
That being said, we need to find alternative ways to harness energy other than fossil fuels. I will leave you with this TED debate to make up your own opinion on the future of nuclear energy.
You might also want to check out The Future of Nuclear Power One Year After the Fukushima Daiichi Disaster.