How Nuclear Power Works And Is It Really That Bad For Us?

What I am going to write is the last of what I have to say. I will say that literature is the only consciousness we possess and that its role as consciousness must inform us of our ability to comprehend the hideous danger of nuclear power.
John Cheever

In 2011, the Tohoku earthquake and subsequent tsunami made us more aware of the frailty of nuclear power when Japan’s Fukushima nuclear reactors melted down. With this in mind let’s take a sober look at how nuclear power works and is it really that bad for us.

But first let’s take a look at some interesting stats about nuclear power and nuclear power stations that you might not be aware of.

Although nuclear power plants are prevalent in most industrialized nations nuclear power doesn’t make up a large percentage of our power needs. In fact, only 13 to 14% of electricity is generated by nuclear power. Less than half of that is the amount of the world’s energy provided by nuclear power which is estimated at 6%.

The International Atomic Energy Agency or IAEA estimated back in 2007 that there were around 440 nuclear powered reactors providing energy in 31 countries around the world.

As you can imagine, when it comes to the safety of nuclear power you have two camps. Those who think it is a safe and environmentally friendly option for power generation and those who think it has very serious and harmful risks that it poses to humans, animals and the planet.

In the first camp. Those who think nuclear energy is great is the IAEA as well as the World Nuclear Association.

In the camp that opposes nuclear energy is Greenpeace as well as the Nuclear Information and Resource Service or NIRS amongst others. Those others would include me too.

This is not to say that I am against nuclear energy solely, I am against big oil and coal as energy sources too. We need to find and put money into truly renewable and safe and natural energy sources.

For example. Did you know that the amount of energy that falls upon the earth from the sun in just one day is more than the amount of energy that humans have used in their entire existence on this planet. There really is abundant and safe natural energy all around us we just need to access it properly with appropriate technology but there is big business and big greed and big money in the way.

The sun releases an amount of energy onto the earth that is equal to 1.5 x 1022 Joules each day which is greater than a zetta Joule (ZJ). The total world energy consumption in 2010 was 5.0 x 1020 J. Way more than enough.

Some other safe and environmentally friendly options we can use instead of nuclear power and the hydrocarbons are geothermal, solar, wind and waves amongst others. But that is an article for another day.

But let’s get back to the original thrust of this chat which is to answer how does a nuclear power plant work?

At the heart of what is nuclear energy is a reaction called nuclear fission. To understand what nuclear power is we have to understand what nuclear fission is.

Nuclear fission is the process that an atom undergoes when it splits into two. This process creates radiation and heat. Massive amounts of heat if it this nuclear fission happens often enough and quickly enough. That is the key to nuclear power.

You see, nuclear fission is a natural process for certain elements. For example, uranium which has been around since the earth was born undergoes slow and steady nuclear fission and that is why it emits radiation which can be measured.

Uranium comes in 3 forms in nature, called uranium-234, uranium-235 and uranium-238. Uranium-234 is the decay product of uranium undergoing natural fission. Anyway, the above 3 “varieties” of uranium are known as isotopes. An isotope is just a variation of a single chemical.

Uranium-235 or U-235 is one of very few natural elements that can undergo natural decay by giving off an alpha particle. An alpha particle is just a particle containing 2 neutrons and 2 protons bound together.

U-235 as you can imagine is therefore well loved for the use of induced fission or manmade fission. You can basically throw a neutron into U-235 and it will absorb it and then immediately split while throwing of a couple or three neutrons depending on how the nucleus splits up.

The amount of energy released by the decay of uranium should not be underestimated. In fact, a pound of highly enriched uranium (this is uranium that has had the percentage of U-235 isotope added to it in great quantities) can be compared to 1 million gallons of diesel in the amount of energy it can produce.

A uranium atom that has been split releases a lot of energy in the form of heat as I mentioned but it also releases a lot of gamma radiation. Gamma radiation can be thought of as high energy photons. The split uranium atoms will also then release their own gamma radiation as well as beta radiation which are high energy electrons.

It is this radiation amongst other things that causes us concern and damages us.

Okay so in order to learn more about how nuclear reactors work we have to understand what nuclear fission is used to create. It is used to create heat, and that heat is used to heat water hot enough to create steam and then it is that steam that generates sufficient pressure to move a turbine which spins a generator which creates the electricity.

But how does nuclear fission in a nuclear reactor create heat and not too much of it?

Good question. Basically, enriched uranium (enriched with about 2 to 3% of U-235 for nuclear reactor use) is made into pellets of uniform size about the diameter of a dime and an inch long. These uranium pellets are made into rods and then these rods are formed into bundles and submerged into water in a pressure vessel.

They are submerged in water to aid in cooling as if they were left alone they would soon overheat and melt. That is basically what a nuclear reactor meltdown is.

But even if you just dropped your uranium rods into water they would still eventually release too much heat and melt. So you have to control the amount of neutrons that are being thrown off by the uranium rods. The amount of neutrons being thrown of is controlled by control rods.

These control rods absorb the neutrons before they have enough time to create massive heat in the water. the more control rods you add to the pressure vessel to surround the uranium or fuel rods the less heat is produced. You want more heat, take out more control rods.

You can also in theory and mostly in practice shutdown the nuclear reaction by surrounding these fuel rods by control rods.

All of this stuff, the nuclear reactor, the rods, the pressure vessel, turbine and generator which make up the power plant are surrounded by 2 layers of concrete and a large layer of metal to protect from disasters as well as terrorist attacks.

There is a first layer which is a concrete liner covered by a steel dome all of which is enveloped by an outer concrete building.

It were these outer layers of concrete and steel which apparently weren’t there which caused the catastrophe of Chernobyl.

All of this might seem benign. But the advantages of nuclear power. That it is relatively cheap and doesn’t produce carbon dioxide gases certainly don’t outweigh the disadvantages of using nuclear power.

Despite what folks might tell you, nuclear power is not a clean source of power. Any power source that can kill and devastate humans, the earth and wildlife is far from clean. Nuclear power reactors around the world for example create over 2,000 metric tons of spent nuclear waste.

This nuclear waste has to be kept somewhere as it is poisonous. It emits deadly radiation and heat and will continue to corrode any container that holds it. Yes, in time this nuclear waste will emit safe levels of radiation and heat… but that’s in tens of thousands of years!

Managing this waste takes money and time. You don’t want this spent deadly radioactive material ending up in the wrong hands.

The key is to keep living lightly. Live simply so that others may simply live and Gandhi said.

Really, we can’t afford nuclear power and we also can’t afford continuing to live on hydrocarbons. We need to back off the gas pedal literally and figuratively and start working towards and living sustainable, frugal lives. That’s what I hope to help you achieve through this blog.

Nuclear power is not the answer. We are the answer. The choices we make every day with our purchases our debts our investments are writing the future pages of how well and how safely and healthfully we’ll live as a species into the future.