Nuclear Energy Fact Sheet by Leslie Lai & Kristen Morrison
Introduction to Nuclear Energy for Civilian Purposes
Most early atomic research focused on developing an effective weapon for use in World War II. After the war, the United States government encouraged the development of nuclear energy for peaceful civilian purposes while continuing to develop, test, and deploy new nuclear weapons.
The Experimental Breeder Reactor I at a site in Idaho generated the first electricity from nuclear energy on December 20, 1951.
16% of the world’s electricity now comes from nuclear energy, 85% of which is concentrated in industrialized countries. A total of 441 nuclear power plants were operating as of February 2003. There were also 32 nuclear reactors under construction (Nuclear Energy Institute).
In the United States alone, there are 103 nuclear power plants, which provide about 20% of the nation’s electricity.
A new nuclear power plant has not been ordered in the U.S. since 1973.
Today, President George W. Bush’s energy policies call for a $15 billion federal subsidy to build six or seven new nuclear power plants.
1. How It Works – The Scientific Process Behind Nuclear Energy
Nuclear energy relies on the fact that some elements can be split (in a process called fission) and will release part of their energy as heat.
Because it fissions easily, Uranium-235 (U-235) is one of the elements most commonly used to produce nuclear energy. It is generally used in a mixture with Uranium-238, and produces Plutonium-239 (Pu-239) as waste in the process.
A nuclear power plant generates electricity like any other steam-electric power plant. Water is heated, and steam from the boiling water turns turbines and generates electricity.
The main difference in the various types of steam-electric plants is the heat source. Coal, oil, or gas is burned in other power plants to heat the water. Heat from a chain reaction of fissioning Uranium-235 boils the water in a nuclear power plant. Some have compared this process to using a canon to kill a fly.
Risk of Accident