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How Does Nuclear Energy Work?

Updated: Feb 6, 2022

Nuclear energy (more specifically nuclear fission) is a controversial alternate energy source to fossil fuels. In my next blog, I will discuss why it is controversial and whether or not I think this technology is worth pursuing, but this blog will just be about the history of nuclear energy and how it works.

After the development of the nuclear bomb in World War 2, people hoped nuclear energy would be a new, cheap, and most of all peaceful offshoot of the devastating technology that is the nuclear bomb. These initial visions soon wore off as it became obvious just how complicated and expensive nuclear was. In the 1970s, war in the Middle East caused oil prices to skyrocket, leading to renewed interest in nuclear energy. There were many different nuclear technologies, but the light water reactor was chosen to be mass produced. While it was neither the safest nor the most efficient reactor, it was chosen because it was cheap, it worked, and it already existed.

Put simply, light water fission reactors work by heating up water using an artificial chain reaction (from the nuclear energy). This water then moves through tubes and turns a turbine that creates energy. The important part in this process is the reaction that heats the water. Nuclear fission, the chemical reaction that heats the water, releases several million times more energy than any chemical reaction can. In this process, elements that are barley stable (in this process Uranium 235 is used) have neutrons hurled at them. The neutron is absorbed by the element, making it unstable. It then splits into some free neutrons, some lighter elements, and excess energy in the form of radiation. This radiation heats the surrounding water while the new free neutrons repeat the process as they fly into other nearly unstable elements.

Once again, if you want to learn more about the controversy with nuclear, some alternative technologies, and whether or not I believe it is a technology work pursuing, I will have another blog on these topics in two weeks.

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