We explain what nuclear energy is and how it is obtained. In addition, what is it for, advantages, disadvantages and some examples.
What is the nuclear energy?
Nuclear energy or atomic energy is the result of reactions between different types of existing atoms , in particular those caused intentionally and controlled within nuclear power plants to produce electricity.
Nuclear energy usually comes from the reaction of the nuclear atoms of certain isotopes of elements such as uranium (U) or hydrogen (H), which when bombarded with subatomic particles allow fission or fusion, respectively, of atomic nuclei . This same principle applies, for military purposes, to nuclear weapons of mass destruction.
These fission or fusion reactions modify the deep structure of the atom and release huge amounts of usable caloric energy, provided it is produced in a controlled and stable manner. With it you can boil water or other gases and mobilize electricity generating turbines, or you can simply redirect for other purposes.
All this principle has an explanation in the equations and tests of the German physicist Albert Einstein, who laid the theoretical basis for the rupture of the atom and the transformation of part of the mass of its subatomic particles into energy: E = mc 2 .
How is nuclear energy obtained?
Nuclear energy is usually obtained from the atomic nuclei of chemical elements such as uranium-235 ( 235 U) or the fusion of hydrogen isotopes such as deuterium-tritium ( 2 H- 3 H). Other useful elements are thorium-232, plutonium-239, strontium-90 or polonium-210.
In the case of fission, the elements are bombarded with low-speed neutrons, which by joining the nucleus destabilize the atom and force it to divide into isotopes of other elements and releasing massive amounts of energy, along with a shower of free neutrons. This same technique applies to the atomic bombs dropped by the United States on Japan in World War II , as the released neutrons impact other uranium atoms in a devastating chain reaction.
Instead, the fusion consists of the union of two light atomic nuclei, such as hydrogen isotopes, through extreme conditions of pressure and temperature, forcing the production of a new atom (helium-4 in this case), an energy neutron and even more amounts of energy than in the case of fission.
In both cases, nuclear reactions byproduct extremely unstable atoms , which emit different types of radiation for a certain period of time , as they emit their excess energy into the environment and eventually become harmless and ordinary elements. This is known as ionizing radiation and is a danger to all life forms.
What is nuclear energy for?
The peaceful uses of nuclear energy are numerous, not only the generation of electricity, which is already of enormous importance in today’s industrialized world, but also of usable and reconducible caloric energy, or mechanical energy , and even in ways of ionizing radiation that can be used to sterilize medical or surgical equipment. It is also possible to use it to propel vehicles , such as US atomic submarines.
Advantages of nuclear energy
The advantages of nuclear energy are:
- Little pollution . As long as there are no accidents and radioactive waste is properly disposed of, nuclear power plants pollute the environment less than the burning of fossil fuels.
- Sure . Again, as long as the safety requirements are met , nuclear energy can be reliable, constant and clean.
- Efficient . The amounts of energy released by this type of nuclear reactions are massive, compared to the amount of raw material they demand.
- Versatile . The application of radiation and other forms of nuclear energy in various areas of human knowledge, such as medicine, are important.
Disadvantages of nuclear energy
The disadvantages of nuclear energy are:
- Risky . In cases of accidents, such as the one with the Chernobyl nuclear reactor in the former Soviet Union, the civilian population and even animal life are at high risk of radioactive contamination.
- Waste . The radioactive by-products of nuclear power plants are difficult to handle and some have a very long half-life.
- Expensive . The creation of nuclear power plants and the use of this technology is usually very expensive.
Nuclear power characteristics
Broadly speaking, nuclear energy is powerful, effective, a true achievement of human dominance over physics . However, it is also a risky technology: after seeing the disasters caused by the atomic bombs of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, or the Chernobyl accident in the USSR , it is known that this type of technology represents a real danger to life on the planet as we know it.
Examples of nuclear energy
A peaceful example of the use of this energy is any nuclear power plant, such as Ikata, in Japan . An example of its warlike use was the bombing of the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 during World War II.