Nuclear fission is an alternative source of energy to non-renewable fossil fuels. Since the first commercial nuclear power plant in the 1950s, debate has raged about the safety of this means of producing electricity. From the advantage of energy efficiency to the disadvantage of the long-term toxicity of nuclear waste, questions of safety have been paramount in these discussions.
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In nuclear fission, energy is generated from the fission of uranium, plutonium or thorium atoms. Most nuclear power plants use enriched uranium. When an atom of uranium absorbs a neutron, it fissions, or splits, into two segments and other particles that reach high speeds. When they stop, the heat converts to energy. Water absorbs the heat from the fuel rods and generates steam, which drives the turbines that produce electricity.
Nuclear fission is an efficient source of power. The energy released from the fission of an atom of uranium is 10 million times the energy produced from the combustion of a carbon atom in coal. As fission uses less ore than that used by coal plants, the environmental costs associated with its mining and transport, such as fuel for transportation and pollution from the transport trucks, are also reduced. There is no everyday pollution from nuclear power plants, and the nuclear generation of energy does not lead to global warming. In addition, this method of energy production does not deplete the supply of fossil fuel.
An accident in a nuclear fission plant can release radioactive elements that are toxic to life, both at the time of the accident and for many years after. The 1986 explosion at Chernobyl killed 31 people, and another 15,000 may die within the next 50 years due to the radioactive fallout. The waste from nuclear plants is radioactive and needs to be carefully transported and stored in a long-term facility, away from life. After 10 years, the waste products are 1,000 times less radioactive, and after 500 years, they are less radioactive than the original uranium ore. Each nuclear power plant in the United States generates about 10 cubic feet of waste annually, which is sent to Europe for reprocessing.
Nuclear Power in the United States
As of 2011, 104 nuclear power plants generated 20 per cent of the United States' electricity. Although 18 applications for the construction of new plants were received between 2007 and 2009, experts predict that the first new reactor won't come online until late 2016. The designs of the new reactors include the proven technology of pressurised water reactors, as well as new enhancements such as digital controls and active emergency control systems.
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- Stanford University; Frequently Asked Questions About Nuclear Energy; John McCarthy
- Glendale Community College; CHM 107 Notes; Kimberley Smith
- Oracle Education Foundation; Nuclear Chemistry - Fission
- Yale Environment 360; The Nuclear Power Resurgence: How Safe Are the New Reactors? ; Susan Q. Stranahan; June 2010