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.
When you think about nuclear fusion, think about things fusing together. Because that is what is happening. In nuclear fusion, atoms are fused or combined together to create energy.
The sun is one of the best examples of nuclear fusion. Inside the sun, hydrogen nuclei fuse together to form helium, creating heat energy that warms the Earth.
If nuclear fusion is when atoms fuse together, then you can probably guess that fission energy is created when the nucleus of an atom breaks apart. The fission reaction you might be the most familiar with is when uranium is used in nuclear power plants. Inside the reactor, the nucleus of the atom is forced apart, creating nuclear energy.
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.
Explore these examples of nuclear energy uses.
- Nuclear Weapons.
- Space Exploration
- Nuclear Energy
- Medical Diagnosis and Treatment
- Criminal Investigation
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.
A great deal of what we know about deep space has been made possible by radioisotope power systems (RPSs). These small nuclear power sources are used to power spaceships in the extreme environments of deep space.
RPSs are proven to be safe, reliable, and maintenance-free for decades of space exploration, including missions to study Jupiter, Saturn, Mars, and Pluto.
4. Medical Diagnosis and Treatment
Approximately one-third of all patients admitted to U.S. hospitals are diagnosed or treated using radiation or radioactive materials.
Nuclear medical imaging, which combines the safe administration of radioisotopes with camera imaging, helps physicians locate tumors, size anomalies, or other problems.
Doctors also use radioisotopes therapeutically to kill cancerous tissue, reduce the size of tumors, and alleviate pain.
5. Criminal Investigation
Criminal investigators frequently rely on radioisotopes to obtain physical evidence linking a suspect to a specific crime. They can be used to identify trace chemicals in materials such as paint, glass, tape, gunpowder, lead, and poisons.
Finally, farmers can use radioisotopes to control insects that destroy crops as an alternative to chemical pesticides. In this procedure, male insect pests are rendered infertile. Pest populations are then drastically reduced and, in some cases, eliminated.
Nuclear energy is also harnessed to preserve our food. When food is irradiated, harmful organisms are destroyed without cooking or altering the nutritional properties of the food. It also makes chemical additives and refrigeration unnecessary and requires less energy than other food preservation methods.
Five 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 energy provided 52% of America’s carbon-free electricity in 2020, making it the largest domestic source of 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.