A Beginner's Guide To Nuclear Power

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Feature story - May 17, 2012
Before a nuclear reactor lands on your doorstep, let's start at the very beginning with ten questions to get you clued up on what nuclear power is all about.

>> Click on a question to read its answer or expand all answers or collapse all answers.



  What is nuclear power?
Nuclear power is a form of energy that's produced from splitting a uranium atom. These atoms are split when they collide with a neutron. This split is called fission. It generates heat, which is used to produce electricity.
  How is nuclear power produced?
When an atom is split, it releases neutrons (small sub-atomic particles). These hit other atoms. This split releases energy in the form of heat. The heat is then used to boil water. The hot water creates steam and the steam drives turbines, which then creates electricity. So, nuclear plants create electricity by boiling water which creates steam to turn turbines.


Producing Nuclear Power


  Where do companies get the uranium that makes nuclear
Uranium ore is mined around the world. The ore is put through a process called milling, resulting in a product called uranium oxide concentrate (U3O8). This is the form in which uranium is sold.

Most nuclear reactors use uranium. The most common form of this is Uranium U 238, which first has to be enriched before use in a nuclear reactor.

The following countries have uranium resources – Kazakhstan, Canada, and Australia are the main suppliers of uranium to world markets, followed by Russia, South Africa, Namibia, Brazil, Niger, USA, China, Jordan, Uzbekistan, Ukraine and India.
  If most reactors use uranium, how is plutonium connected to
  nuclear power?
Plutonium is considered a ‘man-made’ by-product of the process in a reactor. About one one third of the energy produced in most nuclear power plants comes from plutonium. Plutonium is also a key element to making nuclear weapons.
  How exactly is plutonium made?
We already mentioned that when a uranium atom is split, it releases neutrons. Some of these neutrons released by the fission process (the splitting process) convert uranium-238 nuclei (one nucleus, many nuclei) into plutonium. That is why plutonium is a by-product of the nuclear fission process that happens in a nuclear reactor.


Nuclear Power and Nuclear Weapons


  How does nuclear power differ from nuclear weapons?
The two are made using the same process – mining for uranium and enriching the ore so that it can be used in a nuclear reactor.
The only difference between nuclear power and nuclear weapons is the concentration of the various isotopes used in the fuel. It is up to the people controlling the process whether the fuel is used to create bombs or to generate electricity.

Each year a typical 1000 mega-watt (MW) commercial power reactor will produce 300 to 500 pounds of plutonium -- enough to build between 25 - 40 Nagasaki-sized atomic bombs.


Nuclear Power and the Environment


  A lot of people say that, compared to coal power, nuclear energy is better for the environment. Is that true?
The nuclear industry often claims that because nuclear energy generates fewer carbon emissions than coal power, it's a vital energy source in preventing climate change.
The problem is that nuclear power plants are very expensive and they are very slow to build -- meaning they can't deliver the carbon savings we need right now at a price we can actually afford. It also means money spent on nuclear reactors isn't spent on truely green energy sources like wind and solar power.

Nuclear power could only make a negligible contribution to emission reductions at best. Even if the entire global fleet of reactors was quadrupled, this would lead to 6% reduction in global CO2 emissions at most: far short of what we need to stop climate change.

  If a country runs off nuclear power, how does that affect its
  citizens? The kitchen light shines with the same intensity
  whether it’s burning nuclear or coal power, after all.
Nuclear power is dirty and unsafe.

There is no such thing as a "safe" dose of radiation and just because nuclear pollution is invisible doesn't mean it's "clean". If a meltdown were to occur, the accident could kill and injure tens of thousands of people, leaving large regions uninhabitable.

More than 50 years after splitting the first atom, science has still not devised a method for adequately handling long life radioactive waste. 

Nuclear Power and the Economy


  What is the cheapest way for SA citizens to get reliable
  energy with the least harm to our environment? So that when
  we want to turn on that kitchen light, we know there’s
  always going to be electricity.
In contrast to nuclear power, renewable energy is both clean and safe. Technically, accessible renewable energy sources are capable of producing six times more energy than current global demand.


Greenpeace on Nuclear Power


  What is Greenpeace Africa doing to stop new nuclear power
  plants being built in South Africa?
The South African government announced in 2011 that it plans to build 6 new nuclear reactors. Greenpeace Africa will be campaigning to stop this and will urge the government to rethink its energy sources in the country. Nuclear is just too expensive, will take too long to build and will add to the nuclear waste piling up in the country.

We will also have various activities throughout the year to increase awareness on the debates surrounding nuclear energy. Become a member/volunteer and find out how you can get involved.


>> Do you have more questions about nuclear power? Drop them in a comment below and we'll get our campaigner to answer them for you!