An Overview of Nuclear Power Plants
Nuclear power is an efficient and volatile method of creating electricity using controlled nuclear fission, or, less commonly, nuclear fusion. Most nuclear power plants create energy by submerging uranium molecules in water and then inducing fission in the molecules. This process heats the water, which is transformed into pressurized steam that turns a turbine powering a generator, creating energy. Some nuclear plants use plutonium or thorium instead of uranium, while others fuse hydrogen atoms to create helium atoms, a process that also causes heat and, subsequently, energy. However, uranium fission is overwhelmingly the most popular form of creating nuclear power because the element is more common than plutonium or thorium.
Except for the reaction itself, the method by which nuclear plants create power is no different from coal or oil power plants. Due to the danger of radioactive waste, however, the infrastructure of nuclear plants is quite different from other types of power plants, incorporating concrete radiation shields enclosed by steel containment fields.
Because of the serious ramifications of a radiation leak or a plant meltdown, many people are opposed to nuclear power. The process of creating a nuclear reaction is very precise. If the process creates too much heat, a nuclear power plant can essentially become a nuclear bomb. Even with proper nuclear power plant safety, the ability to create suitable storage and containment facilities for the significant radioactive waste created by nuclear power plants, which remains toxic for centuries, has remained elusive. Many critics also fear that in the wrong hands, nuclear materials could be used for weapons instead of for electricity.
Despite the dangers, a properly running nuclear power plant can be safer and less toxic than many other types of power plants. Nuclear plants are designed to contain all residual radioactivity in specialized facilities. Presuming a plant does not have any leaks or structural problems, it will actually release one hundred times less radioactivity than a coal power plant, which also expels carbon, sulfur, and other harmful byproducts directly into the air. Uranium mining is a dirty process, but not more so than coal mining.
Unlike other alternative energy sources, such as solar, wind, and water, nuclear energy is capable of producing the massive amounts of electricity necessary to meet the energy needs of the United States. Though expensive to establish and potentially dangerous, nuclear power is seen by many as the best tool for achieving sustainable, renewable energy.
Basic Terms, Concepts, and Definitions Related to Nuclear Energy
Chernobyl: A nuclear power plant in Russia that suffered a meltdown in 1986. The accident released a significant amount of radioactive material into the air, causing the deaths of several dozen people in the following months and resulting in an estimated 4,000 cases of terminal cancer in people as far away as North America.
Fuel Rods: Hollow rods filled with uranium pellets, which are lowered into vats of water prior to the introduction of the neutrons that cause fission. Fuel rods are used in most nuclear power plants.
Meltdown: An accident in which the fuel in a nuclear reactor overheats and melts the containment structures in the plant.
Nuclear Fission: The process of splitting an atom by introducing a neutron into the atom's nucleus, thus creating two lighter atoms and producing heat.
Uranium: A common element, synthesized in stars, which has been present in the earth since its formation and exists in rocks, soil, and water. Natural uranium is composed of several different isotopes, with uranium-238 (U-238) being the most common, comprising 99.3 percent of the element; it has a half-life of approximately 4.5 billion years. Uranium-235 (U-235) is considerably less plentiful, comprising only 0.7 percent of the uranium element, or 0.00007 percent of the total uranium on the planet; it has a half-life of more than 704 million years. U-238 is transformed in the fission process into plutonium 239, which is the element that generates power. U-235, however, is the most interesting isotope, because fission can cause it to create a tremendous amount of energy in a self-sustaining reaction.