Contrary to claims by opponents of nuclear energy that it is “unsafe,” “unclean,” and thus “unacceptable,” nuclear energy is the safest, cleanest, and among the most practical forms of power generation today. Unfortunately, opponents of this wonderful source of power are succeeding in their efforts to deceive people about it; and the deceived, in turn, are fueling legislation and regulations that shackle the nuclear industry. It is time to set the record straight and to defend this life-serving industry. Let us begin with a summary of the nature of nuclear energy.
Nuclear power is generated by a controlled chain reaction involving the splitting of atoms. A modern nuclear power plant uses the intense heat created by this reaction to heat water and create steam, which turns a turbine and generates electricity. Whereas a coal-fired plant heats water by burning coal, a nuclear plant heats it by splitting atoms. This process is called nuclear fission.
Nuclear fission, in simple terms, occurs when an atom splits in two, releasing a massive amount of energy and several subatomic particles called neutrons. These neutrons, in turn, hit and split other atoms, beginning and sustaining the chain reaction. Reactor operators control this reaction in a variety of ways and thus regulate the amount of heat generated and energy produced.
The raw fuel for this process is the metal uranium, which must be enriched before it can be used for producing energy in commercial reactors. Enrichment is necessary because mined uranium ore is around 99.3 percent uranium-238, which, in today’s commercial power plants, does not readily split upon exposure to neutrons from the fission chain reaction, and thus makes poor fuel. The other 0.7 percent of mined uranium is uranium-235, which makes excellent fuel. The number refers to the atomic mass, or the total mass of protons and neutrons that make up the atomic nucleus. This difference in mass of the same element makes them two different isotopes of uranium. The enrichment process consists essentially of increasing the percentage of uranium-235 by decreasing the percentage (via removal) of uranium-238.
The fuel manufacturing process ultimately yields black, pinky-sized pellets of usable nuclear fuel. These pellets are stacked in tubes of a special metal alloy, and thousands of these fuel rods are placed in a reactor core. The rods are arranged in a very specific geometric configuration to enable a sustained nuclear reaction to occur. The nuclear fission reaction is controlled by inserting or removing a separate set of rods made of neutron-absorbing metal or by adding neutron-absorbing chemicals to the water that cools the reactor.
All methods of producing energy involve risk, and nuclear fission is no exception. Historically, however, nuclear power has been by far the safest form of energy production among reliable and scalable energy sources. . . .
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