Nuclear Power Plant Isar, Germany

Spent nuclear fuel pool

Turbine of a nuclear plant

Atomic Energy

Atomic Energy

Atomic energy comes from the atom, it is the energy that holds together neutrons and protons of the nuclei of atoms. It is also known how nuclear energy, which comes from the nucleus. The name nuclear energy is used because most of the energy of an atom resides in its nucleus.

Two parts of the atom, the nucleus and the crust are differentiated. In the cortex, an indeterminate number of electrons orbit around the nucleus. The nucleus is composed of an indeterminate number of neutrons and protons. The amount of protons in the nucleus will determine the element that the atom is treated, (iron, hydrogen, etc.).

Neutrons and neutrons are linked together by very strong energy links. If these links are broken, a very high energy, atomic energy, is generated. In this case we are talking about nuclear fission. You can also give the opposite case: join two different atoms. In this case it would be nuclear fusion: the nuclei fuse. You also get a lot of atomic energy.

Nuclear fuel

To trigger the reactions of nuclear fission and nuclear fusion and take advantage of their atomic energy, not all atoms are technically capable. In the case of nuclear fission reactions, which is the type of atomic reaction used in all current nuclear power plants, the nuclear fuel used is uranium or plutonium. The uranium and plutonium atoms can have different configurations. These configurations depend on the number of neutrons they have in the nucleus. Each of these configurations is a different isotope of the same atom.

The different proportions between neutrons and protons makes the atomic nucleus more or less stable. For us, who want to leave, we want it to be unstable.

Uranium can be obtained naturally. Natural uranium is found with a composition of uranium isotopes some of them (few) very unstable. To improve performance, natural uranium is subjected to an enrichment process to obtain a greater proportion of the less stable isotope. In this way, it is easier to obtain a fission reaction of atoms in chain, and in this way, to increase the obtained atomic energy.

Nuclear power plants

Atomic power plants (or nuclear power plants) are responsible for obtaining the atomic energy from the nucleus of the atoms and converting it into electrical energy.

It is a complicated process but schematically explained is very simple. All atomic power plants have a nuclear reactor. The nuclear reactor in charge of generating the fission reactions of the atoms. These atomic reactions generate a large amount of thermal energy.

Thanks to the laws of thermodynamics, this heat can be transmitted by thermal convection to a fluid without the need for the nuclear reactor to stop being isolated. Once the fluid has been left with the heat energy generated, the heat can be transported. And we transported it to the turbine area. In the turbine zone, the hot fluid is used to generate steam which in turn will drive a turbine. With the turbine driven, the thermal energy has been transformed into mechanical energy that will allow us to generate electrical energy. The generator is responsible for this latest transformation.

There are many types of nuclear power plants for the use of atomic energy but conceptually they all work by means of a similar process: nuclear reaction to obtain heat, drive a turbine and transform mechanical energy into electricity.

Advantages and disadvantages of atomic energy

Work with atomic energy implies advantages and disadvantages that should be taken into account.

The main advantage of atomic energy is the large amount of energy that can be obtained per kg of fuel.

Another no less important advantage is that it does not depend on fossil resources. The operating system of an atomic power plant is very similar to that of a thermal power plant. The difference is that the heat is obtained by nuclear reactions while in the thermal power plant heat is obtained by burning fossil fuels. These fossil fuels can be coal, oil or natural gas.

Failure to burn fossil fuels contributes to reducing the greenhouse effect and global warming.

The main drawback of the use of atomic energy is the management of nuclear waste. The fuel generated is highly radioactive and remains so for many years. Second, there is the problem of security. Although the security systems of atomic power plants are very advanced, there is always the possibility of suffering a nuclear accident. Although nuclear accidents are scarce, due to the nature of atomic energy the consequences are usually very serious as they were in the case of the Chernobyl nuclear accident or the Fukushima nuclear accident.


Published: August 22, 2018
Last review: August 22, 2018