Energy is essential in human life as it causes things to happen around us. During day time the sun emits light for us to see and heat energy while during night time street lamps through the use of electrical energy help light our way. In our daily activities we use vehicles to transport ourselves from one destination to another and these uses gasoline which is a type of stored energy. The food humans eat on a daily basis contains energy which we use to play and work. Therefore we can define energy as the ability to do work. It can be divided into potential and kinetic energy. It can be found in different forms like electrical energy, chemical energy, light (radiant energy), mechanical energy, heat (thermal energy) and nuclear energy (Miller, 2010).
Nuclear energy is the energy that is trapped inside an atom. It is released by the nucleus of an atom as a result of nuclear fission, radioactive decay, and nuclear fission. The energy amount emitted by nuclear fission of a given mass of uranium is about 250000 times greater than that emitted by combustion equal mass of carbon. Nuclear fusion also releases energy of a given mass of deuterium which is about 400 times greater than that emitted by nuclear fission of an equal mass of uranium. Among the known laws of the universe is the law that states that energy and matter cannot be destroyed nor created but can be changed in form. We can change matter into energy (Tian, 2015). Albert Einstein, worlds most famous scientist created a mathematical formula that explains the above. The equation is which implies that energy is given by mass multiplied by squared velocity of light. Scientists have ever since made use of Einsteins famous equation as the key to unlock nuclear energy and create atomic bombs. The ancient Greeks confirmed that the smallest part of the natural world is an atom but neither did they have the knowledge of natures even in smaller parts 2000 years ago (Littlefield, 2013). Atoms are made up of a nucleus of neutrons and protons which are all enclosed by electrons that revolve around the nucleus like the way the sun swirls around the sun.
Nuclear fission is the main process that is used for generating nuclear energy. It all starts with neutrons in motion. When a neutron goes closer to any heavy nucleus for instance uranium 235, it might be captured by the nucleus and after which fission might or might not follow. Capturing entails addition of the neutron to the nucleus of the uranium which finally forms a compound nucleus. The newly formed nucleus might decay into diverse nuclide. In some cases the capture is quickly followed by the fission of the new nucleus. Nuclear fission mainly depends on how heavy is a particular involved nucleus and the speed of the passing neutron (Snedden, 2002).
Fission can only take place in the low energy neutrons of plutonium and uranium isotopes if they have odd numbers of neutrons. But for the isotopes with even number of neutrons, fission can only occur if there exist energy above one million electron volts. The chance that fission or any other reaction induced by the neutron will occur can be explained by the cross-section of the neutron of that reaction (Cleveland & Ayres, 2004). The cross-section area is that which surrounds the target nucleus and is the one that the incoming neutron should pass through if the reaction has to take place. Fission increases as the neutron speed decreases making the likelihood of the interaction greater. High energy neutrons travel too fast to attain more interaction with the nuclei in the fuel. Thus we can say there is much reduction of the fission cross-section of those nuclei at high energies of the neutron compared to the value at thermal energies for slow neutrons. However it may be possible to use the fast fission in a high-speed neutron reactor whose blueprint reduces the control of the high energy neutrons produced in the process of fission (World-nuclear.org, 2015).
In a thermal reactor using U-235, if a neutron is captured then the energy is divided among the 236 neutrons and protons now present in the newly formed compound nucleus. Due to the instability of this new nucleus, it is likely to break into two fragments each with half the total mass. Creation of the fission fragments is trailed by release of several neutrons (average 2.5) which enable sustainability of the chain of reaction. The kinetic energy of the fission fragments accounts for 85% of the initial energy emitted. In the solid fuel, this kinetic energy is changed to heat energy. The balance of the energy is attained from the gamma rays released from the kinetic energy of the neutrons and following the fission process. The chain reaction can be controlled based on the small proportion of the delayed neutrons arising from fission.
Nuclear reactors produce and control the discharge of energy from division of atoms of certain elements. Most types of reactors use the same principle for nuclear power to generate electricity. Energy emitted from the constant fission of the atoms of the fuel is harvested as heat in form of water or gas, which is then used to generate steam. Steam drives the turbines which in turn generate the electricity. This is evident in most of the fossil fuel plants. The worlds first nuclear reactors can be dated back to two billion years ago. These reactors operated naturally in a uranium deposit (DENNY, 2003). These were found in ore bodies that were rich in uranium and they were moderated by percolating rain water. Around 17 of the ore bodies are known to be found in the western Africa and each was less than 100 kW thermal. Combined together, the 17 ore bodies consumed around six tone of the uranium.
Today, the nuclear reactors generated from blueprints that their original purpose was to propel large naval ships and submarines produce about 85% of the worlds nuclear electricity. The major design is the pressurized water reactor (PWR) whose water is put at above 3000 C under pressure in its primary heat and cooling transfer circuit which eventually produces steam in the secondary circuit. Boiling water reactor (BWR) which is less numerous generates steam in the primary circuit above the reactor core at the same pressure and temperature. The two reactors use water as both moderator and coolant in order to slow the neutrons. Due to the fact that the boiling point of water is 1000 C, both reactors have robust steel pressure tubes and vessels to allow higher operating temperature.
Nuclear energy is not only used to generate electricity but also have many uses if different isotopes are of the same element are used. One of the uses is for military applications and nuclear weapons for example the atomic bomb uses nuclear energy to explode and the submarines use nuclear technology for propulsion. Nuclear technology is also used for making plastics and sterilization of single use products, used in development and process improvement to measurement, automation and quality control. It is also useful in hospitals for instance radiation therapy that is necessary for the treatment of malignant tumors, radiopharmaceuticals, and teletherapy for cancer treatment among many other uses. Nuclear technology has also led to increased agricultural production in the less developed nations through control of pests, improved crop varieties, and best use of water resources. The application of isotopes significantly increase preservation of food and over 35 countries have permitted the irradiation of certain foods. Also the application of isotopes can be used to solve problems such as acid rain and the green house effect. Finally nuclear technology is used for dating coal, rocks and oil deposits among many other uses.
Energy independence in the United States has been on the tabs for several years and this has led to debates here and there. It led to the signing of the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, HR 6 (Gaffigan, 2008). The intentions of signing the legislation were to increase the supply of alternative fuel sources thus creating market for foreign products used to produce the fuel and finally it would diversify the energy supply making U.S. less vulnerable to instability of oil prices on the world market. United States has also placed a longer term framework to subsidize alternative energy which would cause a potential growth and would make US catch up with other countries like Germany that have invested much in alternative energy. By investing in nuclear energy, it would save the United States from catastrophic climatic change. Over 600 coal fired electric plants generate 36% of the U.S. emissions and 10% of global emission of CO2 (green house gas). Therefore nuclear energy is the only cost effective and large scale energy that can help reduce the emissions while meeting the high demand for power (Letcher, n.d.).
In March 2010, Gallup poll indicated a significant increase of 62% in the Americans who favored the use and expansion of nuclear energy (BURR, COULTER, HOWELL & WANGEN, 2003). The opponents for nuclear power have threatened with law suits thus if those who support nuclear energy do not communicate then the opponents will continue to stop new power plants from being built thus this will lead to loss of employment for nuclear engineers. Therefore I hope the initiatives taken to improve nuclear energy in America will work if we are to realize energy independence in the United States.
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