Nuclear energy refers to the process of producing power as a result of the fission of atomic particles in radioactive matter such as uranium. The resulting energy released by the fission of the particles creates an energy discharge that is fed into various turbines in order to produce electricity.
To be more specific, fission is the process of splitting one single atomic particle by bombarding it with neutrons from some source in order to create massive amounts of energy as a result of the breaking apart process. Do not confuse this with fusion, however, as fusion is the process of combining molecules into another core substance. Nuclear reactors are specialized plants that utilize material such as uranium in order to generate electricity by forcing the heat and energy discharge generated from the fission into turbines that would then be used to generate electricity. In many ways, nuclear reactors are very similar to other power plants exist throughout the world, but simply use a different base material for their fuel.
The primary fuel source for nuclear reactors throughout the world is uranium 235, plutonium 239 and uranium 238. Out of these three different sources the only natural occurring substance is uranium 235, while the other two are different isotopes or variations of the mineral. An isotope is a molecular compound that has some slight difference in the the basic atomic element itself, such as more or less electrons or neutrons in its nucleus. These isotopes can have various properties and can be useful in generating different amounts of energy.
The reason why these three different compounds are used as fuel sources for nuclear reactors is due to the fact that they are highly fissionable and therefore produce the greatest amounts of energy with the least amount of input. The most difficult fuel for nuclear power plants to utilize of these three is uranium 238 — however, new “fast breeder reactors” have the ability to utilize this more effectively due to their ability to bombard uranium fuel rods with a high-speed neutrons in order to penetrate and split uranium 238 nuclei. As 99.3% of uranium mined naturally is uranium 238 this makes the newer “fast breeder reactors” up to 60 times more efficient than older nuclear power plants.
Normally, for power plants to best utilize uranium, it must be mined, rolled into pellets and then processed into rods which can then inserted into the core of a nuclear power plant. The rods allow for the most efficient utilization of the uranium during the bombardment process to create fission within each molecule and then transfer that energy into the turbines for processing into usable energy that can be fed into power grids for general usage.
The byproduct of these reactions is both depleted uranium that no longer contains useful fissionable material and some radioactive substances (most often various isotopes) that are the result of the processing of the neutrons in the energy production process and the development of the variations of base materials that come about from the fission process. These products are typically more common in older nuclear reactors that are less efficient in processing the uranium and produce greater waste over reactors such as the “fast breeder reactor” mentioned above that have the ability to bombard material with neutrons at a greater rate and thus utilize a fuel more efficiently.
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