You know atoms? Hydrogen, oxygen, carbon, etc.? They are a million times smaller than the thickest human hair . 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) , which has 92 protons and 143 neutrons . When a neutron hits a U-235 nucleus, it splits it in five parts: two new big atoms, and three neutrons . 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 !
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 , and this heat turns the water into steam, which is then used to spin a turbine, generating electricity . 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  – it’s very different from a nuclear bomb !
There are alternatives to U-235, such as the metal “thorium” . 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 , and the nuclear waste less dangerous . Let’s see where research takes us!
Join our Newsletter!
Climate Science is registered as a non-profit company limited by guarantee in England and Wales.
Copyright © 2019-2020 Climate Science Ltd. All rights reserved.