Sunday, November 22, 2009

How does nuclear power produce energy?

Many people are still not aware that nuclear power is one of the most important energy sources, second after the dominant fossil fuels. In fact a significant amount (nearly 17%) of the electricity produced for the world's energy demand is generated by nuclear power in nuclear power stations. There are even some countries (like for instance France) where the majority of the electricity comes from nuclear energy. Countries mostly decide for nuclear power because nuclear power is basically a low-cost alternative to fossil fuels. And while current reserves of fossil fuels are becoming exhausted, uranium (necessary to create nuclear fission) is still plentiful source.

It is widely known that creating electricity from nuclear energy is not without inherent risks. But, managing those risks is possible and provides an opportunity to leverage a sustainable energy source. Given current safety measures in nuclear power plants across the globe we can be almost 100% positive that new Chernobyl is unlikely to happen again.

So how is the nuclear energy transformed into electricity? Process is known as nuclear fission. A Uranium-235 nucleus is split by a free neutron. When we split nucleus we get 2 new atoms and multiple free neutrons, and heat as the byproduct. The heat is then used to create steam which powers turbines. The turbines then operate generators that produce and help distribute electricity.

Nuclear power plants need to have maximum safety all the time therefore all components need to be at perfect condition because each component does not only play important role in the production of electricity, but it also helps regulate the integrity of the entire process. Each component has its extremely important function and so for instance enriched uranium is collected into bundles that are immersed in water, while control rods are used to normalize the heat of the bundles.

How does turbine in nuclear power stations work? The steam that is generated from the heat in the containment structure is transferred into a turbine. This turbine includes a cooling water condenser that helps normalize the power provided to the generator. The condenser is also connected to a cooling tower that aids the normalization process. Upon receiving power from the turbine, the generator begins spinning to produce electricity.

Many energy experts agree that nuclear power is efficient and environment friendly source of electricity. Nuclear power plants emit significantly less carbon and sulfur than conventional fossil fuels powered plants. However there are also some disadvantages too.

First, using uranium is not a clean process. Mining, purification and nuclear fission produces significant amount of toxic waste. This waste remains toxic for centuries so extreme care must be used in its disposal. Second, nuclear power is not a renewable energy source which means that once the world's supply of uranium is depleted, it cannot be replenished. Third, a poorly-designed nuclear facility (like it was the case with Chernobyl) imposes extreme risk to the environment and the people who live within close proximity to it.

In recent years, there has been increased interest in using nuclear energy to generate electricity, and this is likely to continue in years to come, not only because energy demand keeps on growing but also because nuclear energy with maximum safety on presents one of the best alternatives to dirty fossil fuels. So don't be surprised if world turns out to be much more "nuclear" in years to come.

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