How Do We Use Nuclear Energy Today?
In some other countries such as France, nuclear power is a way of life. Today nuclear power produces about eleven percent of the world's energy. Nuclear energy sources produce large amount of electricity while using small amounts of fuel without the pollution we know is a by-product of fossil fuels.
Unlike coal and oil, nuclear energy do not revolve around destruction of natural resources so often associated with drilling and mining of fossil fuels. Critics point out that radon gas is released during the uranium mining and processing.
However, the radon exists in the earth and by releasing it through mining and processing the amount of radon in the ground is decreased. The processing of uranium does not create additional radon nor add to the risks associated with this naturally occurring gas.
Is There a Choice
Nuclear energy may be debated hotly but one simple truth remains - this may be the only choice we have. Some experts predict we could run out of fossil fuels in as soon as fifty years. Without coal or oil, power plants cannot produce electricity.
It's fashionable these days to tout the benefits of wind power and solar power and those are alternative sources of energy that we can tap and use in increasing amounts.
However, most environmentally sound ways to create electricity are not reliable. Wind turbines won't work everywhere and there arguments against wind farms that are related to fears of damage to birds posed by the huge rotating blades.
Solar power relies on the run and access to the fun's rays. On cloudy days or in areas where the run is blocked for hours during the day, solar power is not a reliable source of energy.
A home built with a solar design can greatly reduce dependence on the commercial electric grid for the homeowner but backup power from either the grid or a fuel driven generator is necessary.
To produce significant electrical power, other environmentally friendly sources must use large areas of land for solar panel installation or for huge wind turbine farms. One nuclear reactor will produce significantly more power using far less space.
How it Works
A nuclear power plant works much the same as a power plant that burns fossil fuel. The greatest different is the nuclear source relies on a chain reaction called fission to produce power while fossil fuels are burned.
Neutrons propelled into uranium atoms split the atoms in half and energy is released in the form of heat. Carbon dioxide gas or water is channeled through the reactor and takes the heat produced and produces steam which drives turbines that lead to generators that produce the electricity.
The turbines and generators used in nuclear power plants today are the same type as used in fossil fuel burnings plants. The fuel used is enriched uranium which has higher U-235 content than natural uranium. Plants in the U.S. use cooling towers to provide the water necessary to cool fuel rods.
Another design for nuclear energy plants places the plants on sea coasts where water can be pumped directly from the sea to cool the steam. These plants are less expensive to built and maintain as they don't include huge cooling towers so often thought of as part of a nuclear power plant.
It is the fission reaction that produces the danger associated with nuclear power. By itself, uranium is not highly radioactive and new fuel rods can be safely handled by workers with gloves when they are initially installed.
One fuel rod can last for years before replacement but when a spent rod is removed, full safety procedures are necessary. Spent fuel rods are removed by mechanical arms operated by workers who are safely removed from the area.
The number one concern about nuclear energy is the safety factor. New plants are built with numerous safety features and backup mechanisms to be as fail-safe as possible. Product of heat (power) is controlled in an operating plant by raising and lowering fuel rods out of and into the cooling water.
If a problem occurs there are automatic emergency controls that can take over and shut down the reactor. Sensors located throughout the reactor constantly measure pressure, temperature and humidity to alert workers of any problems.
It's important to understand a nuclear reactor is not a bomb waiting to go off. The most well known "nuclear meltdown" was Chernobyl where sophisticated safety systems were not in place.
Workers acted to override the shut down system and those actions caused the reactor to overheat and led to a core meltdown and a massive fire. Chernobyl was an example of how things can get bad really fast in a nuclear power plant yet the incident was caused by human error.