Nuclear energy

Nuclear energy is that which comes from the release of energy stored in the nuclei of atoms. It is also known as atomic energy.

Nuclear energy

To understand it in another way, let’s start from the fact that there is a force that keeps the neutrons and protons bound together in the nucleus of each atom. This force can be released in the form of nuclear energy (through nuclear reactions that we will detail later).

To generate the nuclear reaction, chemical elements called radioisotopes are required. The best known is uranium, but we also have thorium, plutonium, strontium or polonium. Radioisotopes are the unstable form of an element that releases radiation as it breaks down and thus becomes a more stable form.

There is no type of energy that generates more controversy than nuclear, above all, due to the accidents that have been related to it. However, it is important to understand how it works, as this way we can understand why various countries such as France, the United States and Japan maintain nuclear power plants.

Nuclear reactions

There are mainly two nuclear reactions:

  • Nuclear fusion: It is one that is released when nuclei of atoms that are light combine with each other and, in this way, generate a more stable and heavier nucleus. An example of this type of process is the one naturally observed in stars like the sun.
  • Nuclear fission: It happens when a heavy nucleus, on which neutrons actuate, separates into two or more small nuclei, releasing not only energy (and other by-products such as photons), but neutrons. These, in turn, can produce more fissions when they come into contact with new heavy nuclei, generating a chain reaction.

Advantages and disadvantages of nuclear energy

The main advantages of nuclear energy are the following:

  • It provides electricity at a predictable cost, unlike other types of energy, such as oil, which depend on international prices.
  • It is a type of clean energy, as it does not produce pollution, as it does when, for example, coal is burned.
  • It is an energy that can have various uses. Normally it is intended for electricity generation, but it can also produce thermal or mechanical energy, which can be used, for example, for transport.
  • It allows reducing dependence on fossil fuels and other polluting energy sources.

However, nuclear power also has its disadvantages:

  • The investment to build a nuclear power plant is very high, compared, for example, to that of a fossil fuel plant.
  • Nuclear power plants generate energy continuously, due to the nuclear fission chain reaction that we explained previously, and stopping it is very expensive.
  • It is a very controversial type of energy, because in the past it has been related to accidents with serious consequences, such as Chernobyl.
  • Although it does not generate pollution, it uses non-renewable resources as an input, for example, uranium.
  • Generates radioactive waste. This, as a product of nuclear fission. Said residues must then be buried, but in the process of elimination the environment can be contaminated. This, in turn, can cause damage to animal or plant species, as well as human health (either in the short or long term).

Examples of nuclear energy

Some examples of nuclear energy are:

  • Nuclear power plants, which generate electricity from the nuclear fission process.
  • Nuclear energy has uses in medicine, for example, for radiation therapies that cancer patients receive.
  • Carbon-14, used by archaeologists to determine the age of a fossil or other organic matter, has a radioactive isotope.