Nuclear energy is energy that comes from a nucleus, the core of an atom. Atoms are particles that make up every object; and there exists a lot of energy (binding forces) which holds these atoms together. Nuclear energy can make electricity, but for this to happen the energy has to be released from atoms.
There are two ways energy releases from an atom: nuclear fusion or nuclear fission (which are exact opposites). Nuclear fusion means that atoms combine to fuse into a larger atom (which is how the sun produces energy). Nuclear fission means that the atom splits into smaller atoms releasing energy.
Nuclear power plants use nuclear fission to create electricity. The fuel that nuclear power plants use for nuclear fission is uranium. Unlike solar power and wind energy, uranium is a non-renewable resource. Inside the nuclear reactor, where fission takes place, a particle called a neutron hits the uranium atom, which then splits the uranium atom releasing a great amount of energy as heat and radiation.
Fusion is a cleaner and more efficient way of producing energy. However, the goal of harnessing fusion for electricity production is yet to come to fruition.
In a boiling-water reactor (BWR) heat boils water, produces steam and the steam then turns a turbine. So nuclear power plants use the heat during the fission process to produce electricity. In a pressurized-water reactor (PWR) the water passing through the reactor does not transform to steam as it is under intense pressure. It remains liquid. The PWR has a steam generator on the side and channels its radioactive water to this steam generator.
The uranium fuel produced forms into ceramic pellets the size of a capsule but each one produces the same amount of energy as 675 litres of oil. Nuclear energy is highly efficient but also has highly toxic waste as a byproduct. However, nuclear power plants do not release any CO2 emissions.
Although nuclear energy provides 30% of electricity in Europe, the general movement against nuclear comes from a fear of:
- a possible nuclear accident (such as Chernobyl or Fukushima),
- nuclear radiation,
- proliferation of materials that can be weaponized,
- nuclear waste,
- plus destruction of the environment through mining of uranium.
The anti-nuclear lobby would much prefer more focus on solar power and wind energy to address the world’s current and future energy needs. They say that the safest reactor is the one that is 148,000,000 km away. You can use that reactor for your everyday energy by getting a solar power system today.