How Things Work: Nuclear Power Reactor
Have you ever wondered how we get our energy? Energy today seems to dictate our lives; virtually everything we count on to live is fueled by energy in the form of electricity. Think about it: our light bulbs, our refrigerators, our heating, our televisions and laptops. So how is this energy being produced? Where does it come from?
There are many methods of producing power to fuel our society?s wants, including hydrogen, biomass energy, wind, solar energy, and of course, coal and natural gases. But nothing beats a nuclear power plant in terms of the enormous amount of energy it produces with the small amount of fuel needed: One half-inch uranium pellet used as fuel in a nuclear power plant is equivalent to one ton of coal, two tons of wood, or three barrels of oil!
So how does a nuclear power plant work? In a nuclear power plant, the fission of uranium atoms in the reactor provides the energy to produce steam for generating electricity. A uranium atom collides with a neutron, causing the atom to split into one krypton atom, one barium atom, two neutrons, and energy. The neutrons then hit two more uranium atoms, causing a chain reaction.
This ura?nium forms the nuclear core of a power plant. Its atoms are stacked into ceramic pellets and contained in rods, then housed in layers of thick steel. Control rods made of neutron-absorbing materials control the rate of their reaction.
There are 104 nuclear power plants in the United States ? five plants with nine reactors in Pennsylvania alone. With so many reactors around, you might wonder if they are dangerous. In fact, nuclear power plants have the potential to be very dangerous: many Americans even worry that a nuclear power plant could be a potential target for terrorist attacks. Imagine how much radiation could escape if there was a nuclear meltdown ? not a pretty sight! Fortunately, there are many safety measures put into place to insure that nuclear power plants remain a safe source of energy. And many of the neighboring towns surrounding nuclear plants have special evacuation routes in the case of emergency.
Even though every possible safety measure is taken, nuclear accidents have the potential to be worldwide disasters. Take the Chernobyl nuclear disaster of 1986. At 1:23 am on April 26, 1986, the chain reaction in the reactor spun out of control. This resulted in multiple explosions and a fireball which blew off the reactor?s heavy steel and concrete lid. Radiation from the accident killed 28 people within the day, and as a result of the high radiation levels in the surrounding 20-mile radius, 135,000 people had to be evacuated.
Nevertheless, the benefits of using nuclear power plants outweigh the risks. After all, nuclear power costs the same as coal, without the smoke or carbon dioxide.