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Nuclear Energy

What is Nuclear Energy?



Nuclear energy, unknown to many, is also being developed as a potential source of energy. It may not have received a good media exposure before as the term nuclear alone scares people. This negative perception resulted from incidents in the past that have claimed the lives of many people such as the Chernobyl accident and the “Three Mile Island” incident. 


This type of energy used to be considered as the “jewel of the crown” among alternative energy sources. It is derived using radioactive material from the earth specifically from the nucleus or core of an atom. 

French physicist Henri Becquel is the man behind the discovery of nuclear energy. He first discovered it in 1896 upon observing that photographic plates stored in the dark near uranium became blackened similar to x-ray plates which were discovered a year earlier. 

How Nuclear Energy Works

Nuclear energy is formed from the release of atoms either by their splitting (fission) or coming together (fusion). In nuclear fusion, energy is released as atoms form together to make a larger atom. This is the same process the sun undergoes as it produces energy. 

In nuclear fission, atoms release energy as they split apart to form smaller atoms. This is the process involved in the generation of electricity by nuclear power plants. Uranium, a metal found in rocks, is the fuel commonly used by nuclear power plants to achieve nuclear fission. During this process, a small particle or neutron strikes the uranium atom and splits it thereby releasing a huge amount of energy in the form of heat and radiation. The same neutron then hits other atoms and the process is repeated many times over. 

Power Generation

Nuclear power plants are capable of producing electricity for a wide area. They make use of the heat produced through fission which normally occurs inside the power plant’s reactor. In the middle of this reactor is the core which contains the uranium fuel. A reactor is basically a machine that contains and controls chain reactions and releases heat at a controlled rate. 

The process by which fission generates heat is in the same manner as coal produces heat in a boiler. Heat boils water into steam and this in turn powers the huge turbine blades. As these blades turn, electricity is eventually generated. 

Nuclear power plants comprise of the boiling-water reactor type and the pressurized-water reactor. In the boiling-water reactor, heated water turns directly into steam inside the reactor while in the pressurized-water type, water is pressurized as it passes through the reactor so it does not turn to steam. 

In the U.S., nuclear power accounts for an estimated 19 percent of the total net electricity generated in the country. As of 2006, there were 66 nuclear power plants noted in the U.S. 

Advantages and Disadvantages of Nuclear Energy

Nuclear power is cleaner compared to that produced by the burning of fossil fuels. No air pollution or carbon dioxide is emitted by nuclear power plants except for small emissions caused by the processing of uranium. 

Its main drawback notably when it concerns the environment is the by-product wastes that are radioactive. This include tools, protective clothing, wiping cloths and disposable items that may have been contaminated with radioactive dust or particles. 

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