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What exactly is Nuclear power and how does it work

Nuclear power has once again found itself in the headlines, but this time it’s not for a disaster such as Chernobyl or three mile island, but as a potential saviour of the environment (nuclear plants produce almost no emissions and so don’t contribute to the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, unlike traditional fossil fuel plants) and relatively clean supplier of our global energy needs. There has been a great deal of media attention on alternatives and how they are going to help clean up the world as well as give us all of the energy we will need. But this is far from the case and alternatives are not even close to taking the burden off fossil fuels. Only two alternatives are viable and have any meaningful contribution to world energy production and they are Hydroelectricity and wind Power. Hydroelectric plants contribute over 20% to total global electricity production, but the majority of usable sites are already developed. Wind power is slowly gaining momentum and the technology is already in place, but it’s not a realistic alternative in the short to medium term. Solar, wave, geothermal, etc.. are very far behind the curve and will take many years and tens of billions of dollars of investment before or if they ever start significantly contributing to energy supplies.

But this energy shortfall has to be met somehow and so it looks as if the burden will fall on Nuclear power to do this. Environmentalists are clamouring together expressing what a terrible idea this is, but when it comes to a nation’s energy security they really don’t get a look in.

What is nuclear power

Nuclear power is basically the production of energy from atomic nuclei by the use of a controlled nuclear reaction. At present the only method in use is Nuclear fission (where one atom splits into two), but there is continued research in the area of Nuclear fusion which has been lauded as the perfect “endless” source of safe and inexpensive energy. Uranium is the “radioactive” element used in nuclear fission. How it generates electricity is that in a nuclear reactor the uranium nucleus is bombarded by a free neutron, which then yields two smaller atoms and up to three free neutrons and energy. This process can become self sustaining and produce a massive amount of energy as more free neutrons are released from the fission event than was required to initiate it. An interesting fact is that a pound of enriched uranium is equal to about a million gallons of gasoline.

Nuclear power plants

Nuclear power plants operate by capturing the energy released from the splitting of the uranium nucleus. This takes place in the reactor (which is used as a heat source) which then heats water which is carried away from the core as steam or superheated water, which is also converted to steam. This steam then drives a turbine which turns a generator and produces electricity.
The enriched uranium is usually formed into pellets about 2.5cm long. These pellets are then made into long rods which are then collected into bundles. The bundles are then submerged in water inside a pressure valve. This bundle of uranium heats the water and turns it to steam which drives a turbine.

Power plants are very similar to a standard coal fired plant, but because they emit high levels of dangerous radiation a series of extra precautions are required.
The reactor is housed in a concrete liner, which acts as a radiation shield. This is itself housed inside a large steel vessel which prevents leakage of radioactive gases or fluids.
This is then all contained within a concrete building, which is disaster proof (earthquakes, bombs.)
It was the absence of this containment level which allowed radioactive material to leave the plant in Chernobyl.
At present there are over 430 operating nuclear plants worldwide and they provide over 2% of the worlds total energy output and 15% of the worlds electricity.

Advantages and disadvantages of nuclear power


Advantages of nuclear power

• Nuclear power is considered a cleaner method of energy production than standard fossil fuels.
• It does not produce greenhouse gases (almost zero emission)
• Each plant produces a massive amount of energy.
• The plants are very well designed and run and very rarely experience problems (except from human error)
• New plants are much more efficient and safer than their older counterparts
• Nuclear power plants have very low running costs (only a small amount of Uranium is needed.)
• It’s reported that nuclear waste can be safely stored underground (although this is a heavily debated issue.)

Disadvantages of nuclear power

• It produces dangerous waste products which have to be stored underground and remain radioactive for a very long time.
• Very high start up costs
• Mining and refining Uranium is not very clean. Also the transportation costs are very high, which add to the cost of nuclear power.


Chernobyl disaster

The most well known nuclear disaster occurred at a nuclear power plant in Chernobyl, which is situated on the border of Ukraine and Belarus.
On April 26 1986 an explosion happened within the plant and because of the poor design, maintenance and lack of suitable containment, tons of radioactive dust were thrown into the air. A great deal of this was carried around the world but over 70% was blown over Belarus who suffered a terrible price and still continue to do so as much of their arable land and forests have been poisoned by the radioactive substances.

Nuclear power will continue to be a hotly debated source of energy production, but time is running out and many people believe that this is the only realistic way of keeping up with our growing energy demands.

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  • SA Kiteman on November 08 2012 said:
    The disadvantages you list don't apply to what should be the energy source of the near future, Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactors (LFTRs, pronounced lifters).

    What causes the long duration wastes is the Trans-uranics (TRUs) that result from neutron activation of U238. LFTRs breed from thorium which starts off well below U238 so breeds MUCH less TRUs to begin with, and unlike solid fuel uranium reactors, the TRUs that do get bred Canberra easily left in the fuel salt to be burned away.

    The characteristics of LFTRs (low pressure, inherent safety, etc.) suggest that LFTRs will be reasonably LOW capital cost and very low operating cost. Studies suggest electricity cheaper than coal.

    Other than a small start up charge, all the fuel for LFTRs comes from the waste stream of rare earth element mining, so the fueling of LFTRs will be GREENER than not fueling them.
  • The Science on March 21 2013 said:
    An excellent detailed account of Chernobyl to round of a plethora of meaningful statements. Well Done!
  • me on March 25 2015 said:
    recently visited the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone – including the abandoned city of Pripyat – as part of a 32-hour Russian-language tour.
    During my time there I took photos (a lot of photos) featuring villages, schools, holiday camps and train stations throughout the Zone. My tour took me inside the unfinished Reactors Five and Six, up close to the ill-fated Reactor Four, and of course, through the overgrown streets of Pripyat: itself a small revolution in social planning, a communally-designed settlement for 50,000 people which was completely evacuated over the space of just a few days in April 1986.
    However, those photos will not be featuring in this report. I’ll post my Chernobyl ruin porn soon enough; but first I wanted to go behind the scenes to analyse the real Chernobyl experience, as well as the broader cultural implications of increasing tourism to the Zone.
    More specifically, this report will look at themes such as:
    - The rise of Chernobyl as a ‘dark tourism’ destination,
    - Why a visit to Pripyat should not be confused with ‘urban exploration’,
    - The differences between how Eastern and Western cultures interact with the Zone, and finally:
    - What happens to a human body after eating fruit grown in Chernobyl (spoiler: it didn’t kill me)
    Chernobyl Tourism 10-DR
    In the early hours of Saturday 26th April 1986, a routine experiment at Reactor Four of the Chernobyl power station went seriously wrong – leading to a radiation breach equivalent to 400 Hiroshimas.
    The experiment was designed to establish how long support systems would last after mains power had been removed; but a combination of poor design and insufficient training led to a fatal error. Automatic shutdown mechanisms were disabled as part of the test, so that when the insertion of fuel rods into the core caused an unexpected power surge, there was no way of venting the resultant steam. Internal pressure loosened the reactor’s cover plate, rupturing the fuel channels and causing a steam explosion in the reactor core.
    Chernobyl Tourism 5-DRTwo of the facility’s staff were killed instantly; others died later in hospital. The first emergency teams to arrive were firefighters, many of whom had been given little or no briefing as to the nature of the accident. One of those firefighters, interviewed on the scene, described a feeling as of pins and needles, accompanied by a metallic taste in his mouth. He died soon after of acute radiation sickness.
    As authorities began to realise the scale of the disaster, radio-controlled bulldozers were deployed to clear the rubble. These robotic carts and diggers were sent in to find and remove radioactive debris; but their electronics were soon scrambled by the radiation, rendering them largely immobile. In the end, it had to be human hands that cleared the bulk of the waste. These human teams (referred to as ‘bio-robots’ by the military) were only able to endure 40 seconds of exposure at a time, as they shovelled the radioactive waste back inside the reactor so that it might be contained.
    Chernobyl Tourism 8-DRThe reactor core burned until 10th May, when it was eventually sealed using more than 5,000 metric tons of sand, lead, clay and neutron-absorbing boric acid, dropped onto the power station from helicopters above. Later, a concrete and iron sarcophagus would be installed over the core in order to contain the worst of the radiation.
    In the city of Pripyat, just 3km from Reactor Four, residents had seen the explosion and the smoke. Nothing happened at first – although one report states that many people fell ill within the first few hours, experiencing the same metallic taste along with uncontrollable fits of coughing and vomiting.
    Initially, the accident was heavily downplayed by Soviet state media. It wasn’t until nuclear physicists raised the alarm in Sweden, 1000km away, that the USSR was pressured into a public statement. Establishing a special commission to investigate the scale of the disaster, Soviet scientists soon found evidence of widespread radiation sickness; and at 14:00 on 27th April, an announcement called for the immediate evacuation of Pripyat.
    Even then, the message was surprisingly upbeat:
    For the attention of the residents of Pripyat! The City Council informs you that due to the accident at Chernobyl Power Station in the city of Pripyat the radioactive conditions in the vicinity are deteriorating. The Communist Party, its officials and the armed forces are taking necessary steps to combat this. … Comrades, leaving your residences temporarily please make sure you have turned off the lights, electrical equipment and water and shut the windows. Please keep calm and orderly in the process of this short-term evacuation.
    Chernobyl Touri
    In the days and weeks that followed a quarantine area was marked in a 30km diameter from the reactor, which would become known as the ‘Zone of Alienation’.
    However, there were those who ignored the orders altogether.

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