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How does nuclear energy work?

3 min read

How does nuclear energy work?

Recently, we talked about natural gas power plants and how they differed from traditional thermal power plants like those that use coal to generate and disburse electricity.

Today, we’re going to discuss nuclear power and how it differs from natural power or things powered by coal.

What is nuclear energy?

Similar to other types of energy, nuclear energy is a source by which energy is made. Nuclear energy is clean energy, results in zero emissions, and generates roughly sixty-three percent of our low-carbon electricity in the U.S.1 According to the American Nuclear Society, “The power from one kilogram of uranium is approximately equivalent to 42 gallons of oil, 1 ton of coal, or 17,000 cubic feet of natural gas.”2

How does nuclear energy work?

In order to explain how nuclear energy works, we need to first review the basic structure of an atom. Think back to your 4th-grade science lesson. Atoms are small. Very small. In fact, atoms are “...the smallest pieces of “stuff” that are still considered ‘stuff.’”3

At the center of an atom is something called a nucleus (think of it as the heart or brain of the atom). The nucleus is made of tiny things called protons and neutrons.

The number of protons dictates the weight or mass of something. For example, Hydrogen is the lightest element because it only has one proton. Uranium (the base element for nuclear energy) has 92 protons, making it the heaviest natural element.

When the nucleus of an atom is repeatedly hit with a neutron, it can break apart. The process of breaking a nucleus apart with neutrons is called “fission.”

Nuclear energy occurs when neutrons bounce off of uranium atoms, causing the neutrons to separate from the uranium and hit other atoms.4

How does a nuclear power plant work?

Uranium is mined from rocks. There are a few different ways of extracting uranium from the ground, but in the end, the process results in a liquid. Liquid uranium is then separated, filtered, dried, converted to a gas form, and transported to a plant.5

The uranium is brought into the nuclear power plant and placed in a big container where it undergoes the fission process we mentioned earlier (where the neutrons bounce of the uranium atoms causing them to separate and bond to other atoms).

The goal here is to produce heat, and it does. The fission process generates heat, and that heat is introduced to water to create steam. The steam is introduced to turbines that are connected to generators. The turbines spin, powering the generators, resulting in electricity.6

What are the impacts of nuclear energy?

By itself, nuclear power doesn’t directly result in increased greenhouse emissions, which is nice. However, the factories that are used to extract, refine, and transport uranium (the element used to generate nuclear power) do burn fossil fuels for power, so that’s one problem that we have to contend with.

The other major problem with nuclear energy is that it results in radioactive waste. Radioactive waste is extremely dangerous to humans and, once produced, can remain radioactive for several thousand years. Though subject to stringent regulations surrounding handling, transportation, storage, and disposal, radioactive waste is still processed by humans, which means errors, problems, and spills are possible and can occur.7

How can I reduce my reliance on fossil fuels?

Here are some suggestions:

  • Educate yourself
  • Talk about the issues
  • Get involved in community events promoting clean energy
  • Carpool
  • Ride your bike
  • Take public transportation
  • Work from home
  • Adjust your thermostat
  • Turn off your lights
  • Unplug your chargers
  • Hang your clothes to dry
  • Invest in energy-efficient products
  • Invest in eco-friendly products
  • Plant a tree
  • Plant a garden
  • Compost
  • Get a home energy audit
  • Go solar

Endnotes:
1. “What Is Nuclear Energy?” Nuclear Energy Institute. Washington, DC. December 19, 2019. Accessed December 23, 2019.
2. “Nuclear Energy.” Know Nuclear. American Nuclear Society, The Center for Nuclear Science and Technology Information. April 2016. Accessed December 23, 2019.
3. “Atoms and Molecules.” Boss, Kit. Bill Nye the Science Guy. Classic Episode Guide, Physical Science. Aired November 28, 1997. Accessed December 23, 2019.
4. “How Nuclear Power Works.” Union of Concerned Scientists. Cambridge, MA. Jul 27, 2010. Accessed December 23, 2019.
5. “How uranium ore is made into nuclear fuel.” World Nuclear Association. London, WC2E 7HA, United Kingdom. Accessed December 23, 2019.
6. “NUCLEAR 101: How Does a Nuclear Reactor Work?” Energy.gov. Office of Nuclear Energy. February 6, 2019. Accessed December 23, 2019.
7. “Nuclear explained, Nuclear power and the environment.” U.S. Energy Information Administration. Updated January 16, 2019, Accessed December 23, 2019.

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