What Is Atomic Energy?

Atomic energy is the energy that holds the sub-particles of an atom together. An atom is made up of three sub-particles: neutrons, protons, and electrons. Neutrons and protons make up the nucleus and are held together by strong energy bonds.

What is atomic energy?

The union or destruction of these links generates an enormous amount of energy. This power source can be used in various ways: electricity, nuclear weapons, vehicle propulsion.

When we refer to atomic or nuclear energy, we usually refer to the origin's power.

The name nuclear energy is used because most of the power of an atom resides in its nucleus.

There are two types of nuclear reactions that release energy:

  • In nuclear fission reactions, a weight atom (with many protons and neutrons) is broken. Uranium atoms are ideal because they are vast and unstable.

  • In nuclear fusion reactions, the goal is to join two tiny atoms (hydrogen). These reactions also release a large amount of energy. They are more challenging to obtain but offer many advantages.

After the II World War, the USA created The United States Atomic Energy Commission (AEC). The objective was to foster and control the peacetime use of atomic energy.

How Does a Power Plant Work?

Atomic power plants (or nuclear power plants) are responsible for obtaining nuclear energy from the atoms' nucleus to generate electricity.

All nuclear power plants have a nuclear reactor. The nuclear reactor is responsible for generating the fission reactions of the atoms.

Fission reactions are reactions that divide the nucleus of an atom.

These atomic reactions generate a large amount of thermal energy. Thanks to this massive amount of energy, it is used to obtain steam to drive a turbine.

The turbine drives an alternator that is responsible for generating electricity.

During the process, the energy undergoes the following transformations:

  1. We start from an atom with a large amount of nuclear energy contained in it.

  2. Obtaining heat energy (through nuclear fission).

  3. Obtaining kinetic energy (when activating the turbines).

  4. Obtaining electrical energy (through the alternator).

There are many types of nuclear power plants. They all work through a similar process: nuclear reaction to obtain heat, drive a turbine, and transform mechanical energy into electricity.

Nine developing countries have nuclear reactors for electricity production: Argentina, Brazil, China, India, Iran, Mexico, Pakistan, South Africa, and North Korea.

What Are the Research Reactors?

A research reactor is a nuclear reactor for scientific purposes. These reactors are the key to the development and evolution of nuclear technology.

Research reactors have less power than nuclear reactors used for other purposes. Typically, they have a capacity of between 10 kilowatts and 10 megawatts.

Compared to regular reactors, research reactors are:

  • Simpler.

  • They work at lower temperatures.

  • They need less fuel and therefore generate less spent fuel.

The fuel used in these types of reactors is usually more enriched uranium.

The large volume/power ratio in the core requires special techniques in its design. As with other reactors, the core needs cooling. They are generally cooled by natural or forced convection with water.

Water reactors use a neutron moderator to slow down the neutrons and control the atomic chain reactions.

What Are the Pros and Cons of Atomic Energy?

The use of atomic energy has pros and cons.


  • Atomic energy makes it possible to obtain a large amount of energy with little fuel.

  • It does not depend on fossil fuels. It means that it does not emit greenhouse gases and does not aid in global warming. Thus, it does not negatively affect climate change.


  • Spent fuel is still radioactive and very difficult to manage.

  • High-level nuclear waste remains active for dozens of years.

  • There is the possibility of nuclear accidents. Although nuclear plants' safety and security systems are very advanced, there is always the possibility of suffering a nuclear accident.

  • It can be used to build the atomic bomb as it happened in the II World War.


Published: August 22, 2018
Last review: October 16, 2020