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Nuclear Energy

Nuclear energy is the energy that is trapped inside each atom. The ancient Greeks believed that the smallest part of nature is an atom. But they did not know 2000 years ago that atoms are made up of further smaller particles—a nucleus of protons and neutrons, surrounded by electrons, which swirl around the nucleus much like the earth revolves around the sun.

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One of the laws of the universe is that matter and energy can neither be created nor destroyed. But they can be changed in form. Matter can be changed into energy. Albert Einstein’s famous mathematical formula E = mc2 explains this. The equation says: E [energy] equals m [mass] times c2 [c stands for the speed or velocity of light]. This means that it is mass multiplied by the square of the velocity of light.

Scientists used Einstein's equation as the key to unlock atomic energy and to create atomic bombs.

An atom's nucleus can be split apart. This is known as fission. When this is done, a tremendous amount of energy in the form of both heat and light is released by the initiation of a chain reaction. This energy, when slowly released, can be harnessed to generate electricity. When it is released all at once, it results in a tremendous explosion as in an atomic bomb.

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Nuclear energy can also be harnessed by fusion. A fusion reaction occurs when two hydrogen atoms combine to produce one helium atom. This reaction takes place at all times in the sun, which provides us with the solar energy. This technology is still at the experimental stage and may become viable in future.

Uranium is the main element required to run a nuclear reactor where energy is extracted. Uranium is mined from many places around the world. It is processed (to get enriched uranium, i.e. the radioactive isotope) into tiny pellets. These pellets are loaded into long rods that are put into the power plant's reactor. Inside the reactor of an atomic power plant, uranium atoms are split apart in controlled chain reaction. Other fissile material includes plutonium and thorium.

In a chain reaction, particles released by the splitting of the atom strike other uranium atoms and split them. The particles released by this further split other atoms in a chain process. In nuclear power plants, control rods are used to keep the splitting regulated, so that it does not occur too fast. These are called moderators.

The chain reaction gives off heat energy. This heat energy is used to boil heavy water in the core of the reactor. So, instead of burning a fuel, nuclear power plants use the energy released by the chain reaction to change the energy of atoms into heat energy. The heavy water from around the nuclear core is sent to another section of the power plant. Here it heats another set of pipes filled with water to make steam. The steam in this second set of pipes rotates a turbine to generate electricity. If the reaction is not controlled, you could have an atomic bomb.

But in atomic bombs, almost pure pieces of uranium-235 or plutonium, of a precise mass and shape, must be brought together and held together with great force. These conditions are not present in a nuclear reactor.

The reaction also creates radioactive material. This material could hurt people if released, so it is kept in a solid form. A strong concrete dome is built around the reactor to prevent this material from escaping in case of an accident.

Experiences with nuclear programmes differ and the future of nuclear power remains uncertain because of public reaction. But in the past few years the capacity of operating nuclear plants has increased more than twentyfold. There are more than 400 nuclear power plants providing about 7% of the world's primary energy and about 25% of the electric power in industrialized nations.

The growth of nuclear power combined with the shift from carbon-heavy fuels such as coal and oil to carbon-light gas contribute to the gradual ‘de-carbonization’ of the world energy system.

Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, and other nuclear accidents have increased the fear of harnessing nuclear energy. Another issue with international and local implications is the storage and disposal of radioactive wastes: both from nuclear reactors making electricity and from the production of military weapons. Earlier disposal practices, such as dumping of nuclear waste at sea, have been completely stopped by formal treaty because of environmental concerns (and by cessation of furtive scuttling of nuclear submarines). Regimes for transport and temporary storage of civil and defence nuclear wastes now function, although sites and designs for permanent disposal have yet to be accepted.

People are concerned about both low- and high-level radioactive wastes; the latter, though smaller in volume is more technically problematic. With the rise of nuclear electrification, the volume of spent fuel and other wastes has risen substantially; but is still small. In some countries such as the US, the volume of high-level waste from commercial power plants has now reached hundreds of millions of tonnes.
       

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