What Is Nuclear Energy?
Nuclear energy is energy that is stored within the nucleus of atoms. The only way for this energy to be released is through the splitting of or joining of atomic nuclei. A chemical reaction cannot release nuclear energy. Nuclear energy is our most concentrated form of energy. In other words, we get the most useable energy from smaller amounts of nuclear energy sources.
Nuclear energy comes down to atoms. When an atom splits or fuses together, it creates a reaction in the form of heat energy. While most of the focus is on the nuclear power created in these reactions, nuclear power, and nuclear energy are different.
Nuclear power is created by harnessing the energy from the reaction. Nuclear energy is itself created during the reaction. Before you can look at how nuclear energy is used in your life, you need to look at the two types of nuclear energy. For more information click here.
Nuclear Energy Examples
Nuclear energy and its byproducts, like cobalt-60, have several uses. These include not only in the creation of power and weapons but also in medicine, space exploration, and more.
- A fission reaction at a nuclear power plant provides enough energy to give electricity to large cities.
- The fusion reaction in the sun provides our planet with all of the energy it needs for living organisms to survive.
- An uncontrolled fission reaction provides the destructive force of a nuclear bomb.
Explore these examples of nuclear energy uses.
When you think of nuclear power, you’re thinking of how nuclear fission heat is used to generate electricity. This is done in a nuclear power plant when uranium is split within a reactor. The energy created heats water to spin turbines. The spinning of the turbines produces electricity much like the turbines on windmills.
You can’t talk about nuclear power plants without a discussion of Chernobyl in 1986 and Fukushima Daiichi in 2011. In both of these incidents, the nuclear reactors melted down, causing radiation and nuclear waste to be released into the atmosphere. These accidents affected the lives of several thousand people and caused numerous deaths.
While nuclear power is generally reliable and less costly, the byproducts and water pollutants that it creates make it extremely controversial.
2. Nuclear Weapons
Another thing that comes to mind when you think about nuclear energy is weapons, like the atomic or hydrogen bomb. Using both nuclear fission and fusion, these bombs create a powerful explosion, which can demolish large areas in seconds. The explosion also creates toxic levels of radiation for those who survive the initial blast.
The magnitude of the devastation that these weapons could create in war makes them highly regulated. In fact, an international treaty was created in 2017 by several major nations to prevent nuclear weapons from spreading.
3. Space Exploration
Nuclear energy can be used in generators for exploring deep space. The Cassini-Huygens probe explored Saturn with the use of a Radioactive Isotope Thermoelectric Generator (RTG) before being destroyed in 2017.
4. Nuclear Medicine
Some of the byproducts that are created during nuclear fission in reactors are important for areas of medicine. For example, cobalt-60 is used by hospitals to sanitize equipment like implants, catheters, and scalpels, along with complex medical devices and other technology.
It is also used in medical radiotherapy for cancer treatment and in medical imaging. Positron emission tomography (PET) scans use a special dye with radioactive tracers.
5. Food Treatments
Nuclear energy and technology are used within food and agriculture to make processes safer and more effective. For example, nuclear-related technologies are used in sterilizing agricultural pests to reduce the use of pesticides. This makes it impossible for the bugs to reproduce, gradually eliminating them.
Nuclear energy techniques are also used to test foods to ensure harmful contaminants aren’t lingering on products. These techniques can also improve yields from livestock.
6. Future of Nuclear Energy
Scientists are only beginning to understand the applications of nuclear energy in many areas of our lives. Additionally, given the availability of this non-renewable resource and its low carbon footprint, many experts believe that nuclear energy and nuclear power will be important aspects of the future. Currently, nuclear power makes up 10% of the energy used around the globe.
5 Facts About Nuclear Energy
Nuclear energy has been quietly powering America with clean, carbon-free electricity for the last 60 years. It may not be the first thing you think of when you heat or cool your home, but maybe that’s the point.
It’s been so reliable that we sometimes take it for granted. Did you know about a fifth of the country’s electricity comes from nuclear power each year? If not, then it’s about time you get to know nuclear.
Here are five facts to get you up to speed:
1. Nuclear power plants produced 790 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity in 2019
The United States is the world’s largest producer of nuclear power. It generated 790 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity in 2020, surpassing coal in annual electricity generation for the first time ever. Commercial nuclear power plants have supplied around 20% of the nation’s electricity each year since 1990.
2. Nuclear power provides 52% of America’s clean energy
Nuclear power plants do not emit greenhouse gases while generating electricity.
They produce power by boiling water to create steam that spins a turbine. The water is heated by a process called fission, which makes heat by splitting apart uranium atoms inside a nuclear reactor core.
3. Nuclear energy is the most reliable energy source in America
Nuclear power plants operated at full capacity more than 92% of the time in 2020—making it the most reliable energy source in America. That’s about 1.5 to 2 times more reliable than natural gas (57%) and coal (40%) plants, and roughly 2.5 to 3.5 times more reliable than wind (35%) and solar (25%) plants.
Nuclear power plants are designed to run 24 hours a day, 7 days a week because they require less maintenance and can operate for longer stretches before refueling (typically every 1.5 or 2 years).
4. Nuclear helps power 28 U.S. states
There are currently 94 commercial reactors helping to power homes and businesses in 28 U.S. states. Illinois has 11 reactors, the most of any state, and joins South Carolina and New Hampshire in receiving more than 50% of its power from nuclear.
5. Nuclear fuel is extremely dense
Because of this, the amount of used nuclear fuel is not as big as you think.
All of the used nuclear fuel produced by the U.S. nuclear energy industry over the last 60 years could fit on a football field at a depth of fewer than 10 yards.