A beginner's guide to nuclear power

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Feature Story - 2012-07-25
Nuclear power, once the domain of scientists in labs and far away from the thoughts of the rest of us, is fast becoming a debate held between every day people.

So before a nuclear reactor lands on your doorstep, let's start at the very beginning and take a quick look at 10 questions to get you clued up on just what nuclear power is.

Map: The world's nuclear plants




  What is nuclear power?
Nuclear power is a form of energy that is 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 turns turbines, thereby creating electricity. So, nuclear plants create electricity by boiling water and creating 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. But this in itself cannot be used in a nuclear reactor and has to undergo an enrichment process to produce a useable fuel.

The following countries have uranium resources – Kazakhstan, Canada, Australia as 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 then?
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 nuclear power is better for the
  environment than coal power. Is this true?
The nuclear industry often claims that nuclear energy is needed to combat climate change because it generates fewer greenhouse gas emmissions than coal power. However, nuclear power is actually expensive and dangerous, and the above claim from the nuclear industry is distracting people from the real solutions to climate change.

Nuclear power could at best make only a negligible contribution to emission reductions: even if the entire global fleet of reactors was quadrupled, a completely far-fetched scenario, this would lead to at most a 6% reduction in global CO2 emissions, which would come too late due to long construction times, well beyond the deadline that climate scientists have set for avoiding catastrophic climate change.

So nuclear power is different to coal power, but is no better a solution to combatting 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 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.

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