NUCLEAR ENERGY | Characteristics, capacity and operation

Nuclear energy is that which arises from the interior of the atomic nucleus, that is, from the central/internal part of an atom . The objective is to cause reactions between atoms in controlled environments in order to capture the potential energy resulting from them.

It is considered a truly very efficient source of energy , in fact it allows obtaining very high potential levels, but at the same time it is a non-renewable source of energy (uranium and plutonium are limited), and its manipulation entails enormous risks for the environment. and the people.

What is the nuclear energy?

When speaking of nuclear or atomic energy, reference is made to the energy produced within atoms, especially in its nucleus . The atom is the smallest expression of matter.

Inside all atoms there is a nucleus that contains protons and neutrons inside. Both are linked within the nucleus, the energy that maintains this link is nuclear. Uranium and Plutonium are the elements that are most used as a source of nuclear energy due to their atomic potential.

How does nuclear energy work?

To harness nuclear energy, it is first necessary to release the energy that is trapped inside the atomic nucleus . Nuclear energy can be released in two ways: by fusion or by fission . With both processes there is a decrease in atomic mass, but this is not lost but is converted into heat energy .

The energy obtained through the processes of fusion and fission is much greater than that developed by any other process. With a small amount of mass , a lot of energy can be obtained. For example, from one kilogram of uranium, the energy equivalent to that produced by 200 tons of coal is obtained .

Nuclear fission

Nuclear fission consists of the division of the atomic nucleus due to the impact caused by a neutron . The nucleus stores an enormous amount of energy, thanks to this both neutrons and protons are united.

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When fission occurs, the energy is released and transformed into radiation and heat . Nuclear radiation is harmful to living beings . In nuclear division the atom is divided into smaller particles, but not less than half the original mass.

Nuclear division releases neutrons which at the same time collide with the nuclei of other atoms to fission them, creating a chain reaction that produces heat . The heat rises and feeds turbines made up of blades, which rotate at a certain speed to the point of producing energy that supports a generator. This generator distributes the energy for consumption.

Nuclear fusion

In the case of nuclear fusion, the atom does not split but joins with another to form a heavier particle . For this to be achieved, the temperature must be very high so that electrostatic repulsion can be overcome .

Light atoms are usually used to obtain nuclear fusion, as is the case with hydrogen atoms and their respective isotopes. Nuclear fusion is still under study.

Characteristics of nuclear energy

  • It is a quality energy and with a lot of power.
  • Obtaining them generates radioactive waste that is difficult to degrade and very harmful.
  • It is non-renewable , and it is definitely not clean .
  • Nuclear fusion or fission must occur for it to occur.
  • The elements that are most used for this purpose are Uranium and Plutonium.
  • It is an expensive source of energy , due to the high standards of safety and technology required.
  • It is an efficient energy source .

What is nuclear energy for?

  • The first use of nuclear energy is to provide electrical energy .
  • In the health area it is used to diagnose or even treat certain pathologies . For example, it is useful in ultrasound, radiology, computerized axial tomography, magnetic nuclear resonance and in the analysis of cancerous tumors.
  • With regard to agriculture and food, it is used for pest control, food preservation and mutations.
  • It has also contributed in the areas of research, instrumentation, etc.
Magnetic nuclear resonance.

Requirements to implement nuclear energy

In order to obtain energy from nuclear reactions, a nuclear power plant is required . These plants are facilities that use reactors to produce electricity. These devices are specially designed to produce nuclear reactions in a controlled manner.

The raw material used by nuclear power plants are fissile elements , that is, those that can undergo fission and generate heat. This heat is used in a thermodynamic cycle to mobilize an alternator and generate electrical energy. Although nuclear energy does not produce polluting gases, it does cause dangerous radioactive waste.

Nuclear reactor

The fissile element is placed inside tubes that are about five meters long and one centimeter in diameter . These are known as nuclear reactors and can be considered the building block of nuclear power. The tubes are made of stainless steel or a zirconium alloy .

Fission occurs in the nucleus due to a rich neutron source that is immersed in light water, heavy water, or graphite. This source is known as a moderator and it is the one that reduces the speed of the neutrons, which ensures controlled impact on the nuclei.

Some control rods are responsible for regulating the activity produced within the nucleus. The way to do this is by placing fewer or more moving bars in the core. The rods regulate the number of fissions that must be produced and thus give more or less power to the reactor . If you want to completely stop the chain reaction, the rods are completely inserted into the core. For the reaction to increase again, only the rods need to be removed.

Nuclear reactor.

Advantages of nuclear energy

  • It produces an enormous amount of electrical energy . This implies that more people can have access to electricity. In addition, electricity is produced throughout the year, making prices less fluctuating .
  • Gases that produce the greenhouse effect are not generated. From the moment the energy is obtained, in the plants there is no production of gases such as N2O or CO2. The smoke that comes out of the chimneys is not smoke with gases, it is just water vapor used in the nuclear fission process and it evaporates.
  • There is less reliance on hydrocarbons for fuel, for example petroleum . As the amount of electricity produced by nuclear energy is very large, this decreases the use of fossil fuels for obtaining electricity .
  • It has less harmful effect on the environment. The energy produced by nuclear fission causes less damage to the environment.

Disadvantages nuclear energy

  • It is not easy to dispose of nuclear waste and its radioactivity , they constitute a constant danger. Heavy metals are other pollutants that can affect living things.
  • Accidents increase with the presence of nuclear plants . If they are not built properly or the required maintenance is not done, radioactive leaks have a harmful effect on the environment.
  • The water near where the nuclear power plant is being built can become contaminated . For the plant to work properly it must be built near a body of water, in order to use it for cooling. The liquid runs the risk of becoming contaminated and causing harm to living beings that consume it.
  • The cost of renewing nuclear plants is high . These plants are disposable, they have an expiration date . It is necessary to renew them and the investment is considerably high.
  • Uranium is a limited element.  It is estimated that it will only last 50 years. It is also very unstable, requires a lot of care to mine, transport and store it.

Nuclear power production capacity

The IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) issued an annual report. In this report it is estimated that the capacity to produce electricity from nuclear reactions will increase by 2030 between 1.9% and 56%. In a low-growth scenario, installed power will go from 382.9GW at the end of 2015 to 390.2 GW. It will reach 598.2 GW in case of a high growth scenario.

Nuclear energy provides 14% of the electrical energy generated in the world , through 443 active reactors in some thirty countries, according to data from the World Nuclear Association.

Relationship between nuclear and chemical energy

Sometimes there is confusion between nuclear and chemical energy, or at least it is not known which one encompasses which.

Nuclear energy aims to take advantage of the atomic potential of different elements such as uranium, and to do so it needs chemical energy .

It could be said that chemical energy is the internal energy of atoms (only it is called atomic for a matter of size, but it is still chemical), and through different processes (fusion or fission), said energy is released .

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