Harvesting the energy residing in an atom was an impossible idea until the mid-twentieth century. It was Sir Ernest Rutherford, considered the ‘father of nuclear physics ‘, who first became conscious of the energy trapped in an atom. While examining the outcome of an experiment conducted by John Cockcroft and Ernest Walton, the latter being his doctoral student, he realized the massive amount of energy produced in the ‘splitting’ of an atom. However, he also pointed out that looking for a stable source of energy in such a process was pointless, since the energy required to split an atom of a light element was so much that the surplus output came up to a paltry amount. While this notion holds true for lighter elements even to this day, the scientific world was yet to achieve the capability of heavy, radioactive elements to develop a highly energy-efficient fission chain reaction.
In the fission reactions (whether spontaneous or induced) nuclei of atoms with high atomic number (heavy), for example, uranium, thorium, and plutonium break producing nuclei with atomic number lower, reducing its total mass and releasing a large number of energy. The process of induced fission is used to generate energy in nuclear power plants. The first atomic bombs of the type dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, were on the basis of the principle of nuclear fission. It should be noted that in this connection the term atomic is absolutely incorrect, or at least inappropriate because the processes involved are in contrast to the nuclear, involving the nuclei of atoms and the atoms themselves.
Makes you wonder!
Fusion reactions in the nuclei of atoms with low atomic number, such as hydrogen, tritium, or deuterium, fuse giving rise to heavier nuclei and releasing a substantial amount of energy (much larger than that released in fission, with the same amount of nuclear reactions involved).
And Now For More Fissile Material
In nature, the fusion reactions are those that produce energy from the stars. So far, despite decades of efforts by researchers around the world, hasn’t yet been carried out in a stable, controlled fusion reactions on Earth even if it is developing the ITER project, a project that will provide the successor DEMO create the first nuclear fusion in the world. However, it is now possible to have large amounts of energy through fusion reactions such as uncontrolled, for example, the hydrogen bomb.
To understand nuclear power, we must first have a basic understanding of the format of the atom and the phenomena of radioactivity. Those who’re already familiar with what I’m about to explain may skip the theoretical illustrations.
Fission is widely practiced and constitutes, in simple terms, the ‘splitting up’ of a heavy nucleus, such as that of uranium or plutonium, to produce energy along with a set of lighter elements and various nuclear by-products.
Nuclear fusion, on the other hand, constitutes joining two lighter atoms together to develop a heavier atom. It produces much more energy than fission reactions. However, as I will explain further in the article, the full potential of nuclear fusion hasn’t yet been realized, and sufficient research hasn’t been taken to enable it being used on a commercial scale.
The process of nuclear fission was discovered by Otto Hahn in 1938. Hahn was an eminent German chemist, renowned not only in order to his academic merits, but also because of his open opposition of Nazi Germany’s anti-Semitic policy. He discovered that neutron bombardment of uranium produced barium and krypton along with neutrons. Hahn was, at first, baffled by the outcome of his experiments. This didn’t fit the existing scientific paradigm as nuclear fission hadn’t been invented yet. His exiled colleague, Lise Meitner, confirmed that the outcome was due to nuclear fission. Meitner’s cousin, Otto Frisch, confirmed Hahn’s results experimentally. Since then, nuclear power has risen in prominence, both as a useful boon and a destructive bane. While nuclear power remains the most efficient power source available to mankind right now, the ever-present threats of the risky nuclear technology, ably illustrated by the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the Chernobyl and Fukushima-Daiichi reactor accidents, cannot just be ignored.
Coming to the purpose of this article, nuclear power is widely being harnessed across the world in an attempt to reduce the global dependence on depleting stores of fossil fuels. But is nuclear energy really the ‘wonder fuel’ it’s made out to be? Let’s find out.
The technology used for generating nuclear power can also serve to produce nuclear weapons. Left in the wrong hands, such as terrorist or extremist groups, nuclear technology could lay the groundwork for a global disaster.
Accidents in nuclear reactors are far more devastating than those in conventional energy plants. Despite being a much rarer occurrence, individual nuclear disasters are much more deadly than, say, fossil fuel disasters. To be fair, the collective number of fatalities from nuclear accidents underwhelm those from conventional energy plants. However, apart from the immediate blast radius, a nuclear explosion (weapon detonation/reactor core meltdown) is also terrifyingly active in its thermal and ionizing radii. Radiation from the core can cause genetic abnormalities in the population. This can be carried on for generations. Long-term aftereffects of the Hiroshima-Nagasaki nuclear explosions continue to manifest in Japanese population even to this day.
Building a nuclear power plant takes a series of years. Although extensive research is undertaken before initiating such a project, there is no guarantee that the conditions necessary for the power plant’s maximum usage would prevail through the length of its construction. The changing energy demographics could alter conditions in such a way as to make the under-construction nuclear power plant redundant with increasing research in a number of other energy sources.
The operating principle of a nuclear power plant is identical to that of a thermal/ steam power plant. The only difference is that in nuclear power plant the energy required for the generation of steam is derived from nuclear fission. The process of power generation in a nuclear power plant is explained step by step below.
Uranium mining operations can prove to be hazardous for the health status of miners and the surrounding population. If necessary safety precautions aren’t observed, radioactive contamination can spread, even to the other generation.