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How does nuclear power work?

Could nuclear power be the way of the future 171 63636 0 14094379 300

There is a lot of controversy around the world about nuclear power and how these plants can be used to generate electricity.

One camp touts this method of energy creation as a cleaner alternative that requires no use of fossil fuels, while others are concerned about the environmental impacts of a possible disaster.

So, what is a nuclear power plant exactly, and how does it function?

Nuclear power is generated from the splitting of uranium atoms in a process known as fission. In the power plant, this process is used to produce heat, which in turn results in steam. This is then used by a turbine in order to create electricity.

It is not renewable - once the supplies of uranium have been used up, that's it.

There are two different types of nuclear plants used by electricity suppliers around the world.

Pressurised water reactor

This is the most popular kind of generator and consists of two circuits. One is used for  cooling and heating transfer and the other for steam production.

In the primary circuit, water is kept under pressure so it heats up but the process is stopped before it can reach boiling point.

This heat is then sent to the steam generator, which is where water in another tube is turned into steam that is directed into the turbine generator.

Water in these two circuits is kept separate, and does not mix.

Boiling water reactor

The other type of system used is called a boiling water reactor, or BWR. Here the process of fission is also used to boil the water, which is then turned into steam that powers the turbine generator.

Both systems reuse the steam by turning it back into water and sending it back through the tubes a second time.

Neither system uses combustion to create power and there are no carbon emissions created.

Benefits of nuclear power

One of the main benefits of nuclear power is its lack of greenhouse gas emissions, which means it is kinder to the planet.

They can be used to help maintain the Earth's climate and keep air quality standards high by reducing pollution.

Nuclear power plants are able to produce a high level of energy by using a low amount of fuel. This reduces the amount of transport that needs to take place in order to get the energy from point A to point B.

These plants do not require as much land as solar or wind farms, so more space can be dedicated to other uses.

The areas around nuclear power plants are very clean, including any lakes or rivers, aiding aquatic life conservation.

Any water discharged from these kinds of power plants is free from pollutants and must meet all temperature standards before being discharged into the water.

As a result, the areas around nuclear plants are often developed as wetlands to promote the preservation of marine animals, trees, grasses and flowers.

Many endangered species are found in the areas adjacent to these properties. One problem many people have with wind farms is the attraction bird life has to the propellers. This can reduce the numbers of protected birds in these areas, harming the food cycle.

Practically speaking, nuclear power plants are also a more reliable source of energy as there is no need to gamble on the weather patterns to determine supply.

Rain or shine, nuclear power plants can generate energy. 

They are also able to run for an extended length of time before requiring any maintenance or service, so they have a lower overall operating cost.

Uranium is a common element, according to the Franklin Institute Science Museum, which states it is as prevalent as tin.

Disadvantages of nuclear power

Many people are concerned about the impact nuclear waste has on the environment, and what would happen if there was an accident.

Only small amounts of nuclear waste are created by nuclear power plants, but this can be expensive to remove as the output is radioactive.

This means if this waste were to leak out into the environment, it could contaminate water supplies as well as the food chain.

Nuclear waste is carried on the road, by rail and also by sea, increasing the risk of a terrorist attack. If a waste train were to be involved,  tens of thousands of people could be exposed to cancer-causing radiation, according to Greenpeace. Entire regions would need to be evacuated.

These waste products can also be used to create nuclear weapons, which again raises the issue of terrorism.

In order to be kept safe, this waste must be sealed up and buried for thousands of years - enough time for the radioactivity to die away. The most dangerous waste needs to be kept safe for over 100,000 years in geological repositories.

During this period, it must be kept safe from natural disasters such as earthquakes and flooding as well as terrorists. This can be a costly and difficult process.

The other major concern many have is the event of another Chernobyl, or Fukushima-type event.

Even when small doses of radiation are released into the environment, reactions can be seen in local residents, such as nausea, vomiting, fatigue and diarrhoea. These symptoms may not even be evident straight off the bat, hitting some people years after the exposure in form of ailments like cancer.

Currently, the Australian government has no plans to pursue nuclear energy.

Posted by Liam Tunney.