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The radioactive fission products are hottest when a reactor first shuts down. This decay heat must be cooled or else the containment structures that hold the fuel and waste can breach, releasing radiation into the biosphere. Accidents at Fukushima and Three Mile Island were caused by this effect. Unstable reactor design and operation at Chernobyl led to a power excursion and widespread dispersal of radioactive material.

So, people worry about reactor safety. Nuclear energy has actually saved 1.

Nuclear energy is energy in the core of an atom

This includes the health effects of the nuclear accidents. And advanced designs can make them even safer. The first application of fission was as an atomic bomb. While nuclear reactors and atomic bombs are very different machines and a reactor can never explode like a bomb , there is some technology overlap, especially in fuel cycle facilities like enrichment and reprocessing plants.

So, some people argue that having reactors around might make it easier to spread nuclear weapons. It is important for nuclear facilities to monitor nuclear material. That said advanced designs are being developed that reduce reliance on enrichment. Nuclear reactors are generally large and complex, with lots of reinforced concrete and nuclear-grade quality assurance programs.

As a result, they tend to be expensive to build. If carbon dioxide is ever taxed as a pollutant, then nuclear reactors will become much more competitive. Research is ongoing in many venues to reduce the cost of nuclear reactors. Advanced designs and construction techniques can possibly bring costs down substantially. Like every other energy source, nuclear energy has both good aspects and bad. Nuclear waste needs political will to be dealt with, but there are safe ways to dispose of it. As for reactor safety, while the accidents that have occurred are high profile and memorable, the actual risk to public health is very small compared to most of the alternatives.

How a Nuclear Plant Works Most power plants spin a turbine to generate electricity. Coal, natural gas, oil and nuclear energy use their fuel to turn water into steam and use that steam to turn a turbine. Nuclear plants are different because they do not burn anything to create steam. Instead, they split uranium atoms in a process called fission. As a result—unlike other energy sources—nuclear power plants do not release carbon or pollutants like nitrogen oxide NOx and sulfur oxide SO2 into the air.

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Nuclear power in the 21st century: Challenges and possibilities

When the reactor starts, uranium atoms split, releasing heat. This heat is used to create the steam that spins a turbine, which powers a generator to make electricity. Nuclear Fuel Nuclear fuel is solid when it goes in a reactor and solid when it comes out. It is arranged in fuel assemblies: sets of sealed metal tubes that hold ceramic uranium pellets. Uranium is an abundant metal and full of energy: One uranium fuel pellet creates as much energy as one ton of coal, gallons of oil or 17, cubic feet of natural gas.

It does not come out of the ground ready to go into a reactor, though; it must undergo four major processing steps: mining and milling, conversion, enrichment and fuel fabrication. Natural uranium is converted into several different forms to prepare it for enrichment. The enriched uranium is converted into a powder and then pressed into fuel pellets.

The fuel fabricator loads these pellets into the fuel assemblies that are used in nuclear reactors. Nuclear Waste Once removed from a reactor, used fuel assemblies initially cool down in a storage pool. The concrete-and-steel pool and the water above the assemblies shield workers from radioactivity. When cool enough that it no longer needs to be stored underwater—typically two to five years after removal from the reactor—used fuel is transferred and stored in dry casks, which are large steel-reinforced concrete containers.

The nuclear industry handles nuclear waste safely and in compliance with the stringent requirements of the U.

An introduction to nuclear power

Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the U. Department of Energy and the U. Environmental Protection Agency. All of the used fuel ever produced by the commercial nuclear industry would cover a football field to a depth of less than 10 yards. That might seem like a lot, but coal plants generate that same amount of waste every hour.


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Safety and Security Nuclear power plants maintain the highest standard for operational safety, security and emergency preparedness. Robust physical defenses, redundant security systems and highly trained security officers protect our plants from threats. While advanced cybersecurity measures keep intruders out with layers of security and constant monitoring of new threats.

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No single safety layer is exclusively relied upon, no matter how strong it is. Multiple physical barriers protect against an accidental radiation release, such as the rods that encase the uranium fuel and the steel-reinforced concrete building that houses the reactor. Cooper Union. Houghton, Jr. Gallery Frederick P.

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