What is Nuclear Power?
Nuclear power has a significant part to play in maintaining a balanced energy policy. It currently contributes to 26% of the UK’s electricity generation and a great deal more in countries like France and Germany. Nuclear power generation does not emit pollution and can therefore help to reduce acid rain and global warming.
Nuclear power generation uses the fuel uranium to produce electricity. Uranium is a highly concentrated energy source that is available throughout the world in large quantities. 1 tonne of uranium can produce as much electricity as 2000 tonnes of coal. Once uranium has been used, it can be reprocessed and recycled to make more fuel. During the reprocessing, plutonium is given off as a by-product. The plutonium can then be used to generate power in fast reactors.
Electricity is generated in a nuclear power plant when an extra neutron is added to the nucleus of a uranium atom. This causes it to split apart and release heat energy. As the nucleus splits apart, several neutrons are released, which can then collide with another nucleus and cause further fission. This leads to a chain of reactions. The heat produced during fission converts water to steam, which then turns a turbine and generates
electricity. In a power station, the
Waste generated by the nuclear industry is radioactive and must therefore be disposed of with extreme care. The waste must be managed to present no hazard to humans or the environment. The radioactivity of waste will decay over time. All radioactive waste is managed according to its content. There are three classifications of radioactive waste:
High-level waste is made up of material separated from uranium and plutonium during reprocessing. This waste is very radioactive and must therefore be stored in large steel tanks, or made into solid blocks of glass in a process called vitrification. Although this waste is highly dangerous, the amount produced is very small.
Intermediate-level waste is made up of contaminated equipment and sludges from various treatment processes. It is far less radioactive than high-level waste.
Low-level waste refers to paper towels, clothing and lab equipment which may have come into contact with radioactive materials. This waste has a very small radioactive content and is therefore disposed of deep underground.