Science News

Quick Fire Science: Nuclear Power

Wed, 28th Aug 2013

Dave Ansell

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This week, nuclear expert Mycle Schneider, formerly an adviser to the French and German governments has said that he’s deeply worried about contaminated cooling water leaking from tanks at the site of the Fukushima nuclear reactors.

- Huge amounts of energy can be released by joining or fusing small atoms together to make larger atoms, or by splitting apart larger atoms like uranium.
- In nuclear reactors, atoms such as Uranium 235 and Plutonium 239 are bombarded by neutrons which causes them to split in two, a process called fission.
- When atoms undergo fission, they often release more neutrons, which can go on to hit another atom, creating a chain reaction.
- A kilogram of uranium in a nuclear reaction can release more energy by fission than 10 000 tonnes of coal, gas or oil, and all without releasing any greenhouse gasses.
- In a nuclear bomb, all of the energy from several kg of uranium or lutonium are emitted within a single microsecond, creating an immensely destructive burst of energy.
- The first controlled release of nuclear energy was in a reactor built in 1942 under the stands in a chicago university american football stadium. But it wasn't producing power, just plutonium to build America’s second nuclear bomb.
- The first commercial nuclear power station was Calder Hall in cumbria . It was built in 1956 and generated 60 megawatts of power.
- Unfortunately many of the atoms left over after fission are unstable and can release some of their remaining energy over days and years in the form of high energy particles and gamma rays, known as radiation.
- This radiation can damage the DNA in cells which can cause cancer, or in very large doses radiation sickness.
- On average less than a third of 1% of your annual radiation exposure is due to nuclear bombs and nuclear power. Between a third and a half of your exposure is due to medical procedures such as X-rays and the rest is due to natural radiation.
- Today in the uk 19% of electricity is produced by nuclear power compared to 4.6% by renewables and the percentage is dropping as older plants are being decommissioned.
- The last nuclear power plant to be built in the UK was Sizewell B completed in 1995.


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I don't know, for you and me it's a passing worry. for our descendants though?
I'm not pleased with TNS becoming a dummy. yor_on, Mon, 2nd Sep 2013

I assume that is pure, elemental uranium.
How much ore went into producing that 1KG rod?  How much of the Uranium is actually used?  How much waste is produced?  We certainly need a better way to at least control the waste streams. 

And, the equation becomes much less remarkable if we are only using 10% of the Uranium & derivatives. CliffordK, Mon, 2nd Sep 2013

Ah, Fukushima, where 20,000 people drowned, 200,000 were made homeless, there is every possibility of another disastrous tsunami at any time, and the rest of the world pontificates about an entirely containable problem at the power station.

Is science completely dead (Dave Ansell's story certainly suggests so) , or do the chattering classes really not care about other people's lives and livelihoods? alancalverd, Mon, 2nd Sep 2013

Apparently it is still leaking radiation into the sea.  But it is a good point that there are many dangers in the world other than radiation. CliffordK, Mon, 2nd Sep 2013

Quite possibly the safest place for it to go. It will upset some ecofascists, no doubt, but very few people drink seawater and there is an awful lot of it about.

It has been said that the solution to pollution is dilution. Where better than the Pacific? alancalverd, Mon, 2nd Sep 2013

Nuclear power works by either splitting an atom or fusing two atoms into one. The former is called fission while the later is called fussion.

Fission works by the fact that a lot of energy is stored in the nucleus as electric potential energy. When the nucleus us split that energy is changed to kinetic energy. That kinetic energy is used to heat water and that water turns into steam and that steam is used to turn electric generators.

For details on nuclear fission see

That site explains why mass is not converted into energy. Pmb, Tue, 3rd Sep 2013

True, but they are worried about coastal fisheries in the area, fish being very important in the Japanese diet and psyche. Also groundwater pollution from the leaky storage tanks (one shudders to think how another earthquake would affect them - oops, tragic pun!).

I understand they now plan to temporarily isolate the site by refrigeration - making a wall of frozen ground all around it using liquid nitrogen, until they figure out what to do next. dlorde, Wed, 4th Sep 2013

...apart, that is,  from two small problems. (a) the mass sum of the fission products depicted is less than the initial mass, so some matter must have gone somewhere and (b) no neutrons were emitted, so there can be no chain reaction and the fire will go out. Probably not the most authoritative reference on nuclear fission in power reactors. alancalverd, Thu, 5th Sep 2013

Except that the local fishing industry was destroyed by the tsunami. alancalverd, Thu, 5th Sep 2013

Except that the local fishing industry was destroyed by the tsunami.

I expect they're worried that it won't be able to recover. dlorde, Thu, 5th Sep 2013

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