How does nuclear power work?

You know atoms? Hydrogen, oxygen, carbon, etc.? They are a million times smaller than the thickest human hair [3]. In the centre of an atom is the nucleus (made of protons and neutrons) with electrons around it. Nuclear energy as used today, refers to a process called “Nuclear fission”. It involves bombarding atoms with neutrons, causing their nucleus to split [1,2]. When a nucleus splits, a huge amount of energy is released [2,4].

Most nuclear power plants use a metal called “uranium-235” (U-235) [2], which has 92 protons and 143 neutrons [5]. When a neutron hits a U-235 nucleus, it splits it in five parts: two new big atoms, and three neutrons [1]. The two new atoms don’t matter much, but the three neutrons now go on to hit more U-235 nuclei, causing them to split, and so on. This is a chain reaction [1]!

Now, how does this make energy? When U-235 is split, it releases energy in the form of heat. The U-235 is held in a water tank [1], and this heat turns the water into steam, which is then used to spin a turbine, generating electricity [1]. In a nutshell, nuclear energy is a very neat way to boil water.

The nuclear chain reaction is carefully controlled so that the right amount of heat is released [2] – it’s very different from a nuclear bomb [4]!

There are alternatives to U-235, such as the metal “thorium” [6]. The technology isn’t mature yet, but after decades of almost nothing happening, scientists are now starting to move forward again [3,6]. Thorium would be harder to turn into nuclear weapons [6], and the nuclear waste less dangerous [6]. Let’s see where research takes us!


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