Vanguard (Lagos)

Nigeria: Nuclear Energy - Understanding How It Works

The principles of nuclear power were formulated by physicists in the early 20th century. In 1939, German scientists discovered the process of fission, triggering a race with American scientists to use the incredible power of fission to create a bomb. Their efforts yielded results; the atomic bomb was created by 1945, and used to destroy Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II.

After the war, "great atomic power" was seen as a potential new energy source. It was rightly thought that atomic explosions would be a labor-saving way to dig canals and drinking water reservoirs and to mine for gas and oil - as this was later established.

A more successful use of atomic power was in nuclear reactors. The development of small reactors to power submarines, greatly extending their range and power was discovered and the USS Nautilus was launched in 1954.

By the late 1950s, nuclear power was being developed for commercial electric power, first in England. Morris, Illinois, was the site of the first US commercial reactor, and presently, nuclear energy provides for approximately 16% of the world's electricity

What is Nuclear Energy?

Nuclear energy originates from the splitting of uranium atoms in a process called fission. At the power plant, the fission process is used to generate heat for producing steam, which is used by a turbine to generate electricity. So when atoms split--or fission, they produce large amounts of energy, which is called nuclear energy. This energy is released in the form of heat. As the atom fragments hit other atoms, they also split further, producing more heat. A nuclear power plant uses this heat to produce electricity.


Nuclear energy is produced in man-made operations under human control. It is produced in two different ways, in one; large nuclei are split to release energy. In the other method, small nuclei are combined to release energy. These two ways are Fission and Fussion.

Nuclear Fission : In nuclear fission, the nuclei of atoms are split, causing energy to be released. The atomic bomb and nuclear reactors work by fission. The element uranium is the main fuel used to undergo nuclear fission to produce energy since it has many favorable properties.

Uranium nuclei can be easily split by shooting neutrons at them. Also, once a uranium nucleus is split, multiple neutrons are released which are used to split other uranium nuclei. This phenomenon is known as a chain reaction.

Nuclear Fusion : In nuclear fusion, the nuclei of atoms are joined together, or fused. This happens only under very hot conditions. The Sun, like all other stars, creates heat and light through nuclear fusion. In the Sun, hydrogen nuclei fuse to make helium.

The hydrogen bomb, humanity's most powerful and destructive weapon, also works by fusion. The heat required to start the fusion reaction is so great that an atomic bomb is used to provide it. Hydrogen nuclei fuse to form helium and in the process release huge amounts of energy thus producing a huge explosion.

Milestones in the History of Nuclear Energy

December 2, 1942: The Nuclear Age began at the University of Chicago when Enrico Fermi made a chain reaction in a pile of uranium.

August 6, 1945: The United States dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan, killing over 100,000.

August 9, 1945: The United States dropped an atomic bomb on Nagasaki, Japan, killing over 40,000.

*November 1, 1952: The first large version of the hydrogen bomb (thousands of times more powerful than the atomic bomb) was exploded by the United States for testing purposes.

*February 21, 1956: The first major nuclear power plant opened in England.

Advantages of Nuclear Energy

*The Earth has limited supplies of coal and oil. Nuclear power plants could still produce electricity after coal and oil become scarce.

*Nuclear power plants need less fuel than ones which burn fossil fuels. One ton of uranium produces more energy than is produced by several million tons of coal or several million barrels of oil.

*Coal and oil burning plants pollute the air. Well-operated nuclear power plants do not release contaminants into the environment.

Disadvantages of Nuclear Energy

The nations of the world now have more than enough nuclear bombs to kill every person on Earth. The two most powerful nations -- Russia and the United States -- have about 50,000 nuclear weapons between them. What if there were to be a nuclear war? What if terrorists got their hands on nuclear weapons? Or what if nuclear weapons were launched by accident?

*Nuclear explosions produce radiation. The nuclear radiation harms the cells of the body which can make people sick or even kill them. Illness can strike people years after their exposure to nuclear radiation.

*One possible type of reactor disaster is known as a meltdown. In such an accident, the fission reaction goes out of control, leading to a nuclear explosion and the emission of great amounts of radiation.

*In 1979, the cooling system failed at the Three Mile Island nuclear reactor near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Radiation leaked, forcing tens of thousands of people to flee. The problem was solved minutes before a total meltdown would have occurred. Fortunately, there were no deaths.

*In 1986, a much worse disaster struck Russia's Chernobyl nuclear power plant. In this incident, a large amount of radiation escaped from the reactor. Hundreds of thousands of people were exposed to the radiation. Several dozen died within a few days. In the years to come, thousands more may die of cancers induced by the radiation.

*And in 2011, Japan recorded a nuclear disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. There was a series of equipment failures, nuclear meltdowns, and releases of radioactive materials at the Power Plant, following the TMhoku earthquake and tsunami on 11 March 2011. It is the largest nuclear disaster since the Chernobyl disaster of 1986, and only the second disaster (along with Chernobyl) to measure Level 7 on the International Nuclear Event Scale.

*Nuclear reactors also have waste disposal problems. Reactors produce nuclear waste products which emit dangerous radiation. Because they could kill people who touch them, they cannot be thrown away like ordinary garbage. Currently, many nuclear wastes are stored in special cooling pools at the nuclear reactors.

*In 1957, at a dump site in Russia's Ural Mountains, several hundred miles from Moscow, buried nuclear wastes mysteriously exploded, killing dozens of people.

*Nuclear reactors only last for about forty to fifty years.

The Future of Nuclear Energy

Some people think that nuclear energy is here to stay and we must learn to live with it. Others say that we should get rid of all nuclear weapons and power plants. Both sides have their cases as there are advantages and disadvantages to nuclear energy. Still others have opinions that fall somewhere in between.

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