Part 6: How Nuclear Energy Works


Team Ostrom


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While we source from solar, wind and hydro energy at Ostrom, nuclear energy has always been one that is quite contentious. Some countries such as Germany have strong feelings against nuclear energy, while other countries such as France get most of their energy mix from nuclear power.

Nuclear power is a type of energy that is produced by the splitting of atoms, a process called nuclear fission. In a nuclear power plant, this energy is used to generate electricity for homes, businesses, and other users.

The process of nuclear fission begins with the use of fuel rods, which are made up of a material called uranium. Uranium is a naturally occurring element that is found in small amounts in the earth's crust. The uranium in fuel rods is typically enriched, meaning that it has a higher concentration of a specific isotope called uranium-235. This isotope is important because it is the most likely to undergo nuclear fission, or splitting, when it absorbs a neutron.

To start the fission process, the fuel rods are placed in a reactor, which is a large vessel that is designed to contain and control the nuclear reaction. Inside the reactor, the fuel rods are arranged in a specific pattern to create a critical mass, or the minimum amount of material needed to sustain a nuclear chain reaction.

To initiate the chain reaction, a neutron source, such as a small amount of the element beryllium, is used to bombard the fuel rods. When a uranium-235 atom absorbs a neutron, it splits into two smaller atoms, releasing energy and more neutrons in the process. These additional neutrons can then go on to split other uranium-235 atoms, creating a chain reaction.

As the chain reaction continues, it releases a large amount of heat, which is used to generate steam. The steam is then used to turn a turbine, which is connected to a generator. The turbine's movement causes the generator to produce electricity, which is then transmitted to the power grid and distributed to homes and businesses.

In order to control the nuclear reaction, a number of safety systems are in place. For example, control rods, which are made of a material that absorbs neutrons, can be inserted into the reactor to absorb excess neutrons and slow down the chain reaction. Additionally, the reactor is surrounded by a thick concrete and steel containment vessel, which is designed to contain any radiation that may be released in the event of an accident.

There are several advantages to using nuclear power as a source of electricity. One of the main benefits is that it produces a large amount of electricity with a relatively small amount of fuel. In fact, a single fuel rod can produce the same amount of electricity as about 1,500 tons of coal. Additionally, nuclear power plants do not produce greenhouse gases, making it a clean and environmentally friendly source of electricity.

On the other hand, there are also some drawbacks to nuclear power. One concern is the risk of accidents, such as the ones that occurred at the Three Mile Island and Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plants. Another concern is the disposal of nuclear waste, which can remain radioactive for thousands of years. However, advances in technology and safety measures have greatly reduced the risk of accidents, and there are various methods being developed for safely storing and disposing of nuclear waste.

Overall, nuclear power is a reliable and efficient source of electricity that has the potential to play a significant role in meeting the world's energy needs. While there are some risks and challenges associated with it, careful planning and regulation can help to ensure the safe and responsible use of this powerful energy source.