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Engineering LibreTexts

4.7: Nuclear Energy

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  • Nuclear energy is energy in the nucleus (core) of an atom (see chapter 1 for a review of atomic structure). There is enormous energy in the forces that hold protons and neutrons in the nucleus together. Energy is released when those forces are broken. Nuclear energy can be released from atoms by splitting apart the nucleus of an atom to form smaller atoms, a process known as nuclear fission. During nuclear fission, a small atomic particle called a neutron hits the uranium atom and splits it, releasing a great amount of energy in the form of heat and radiation. More neutrons are also released when the uranium atom splits. These neutrons go on to bombard other uranium atoms, and the process repeats itself over and over again. This is called a chain reaction (Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\)). Nuclear power plants use the energy from nuclear fission to produce electricity.

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    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Fission chain reaction – begins when a neutron bombards a U-235 atom, splitting it into two fission fragments, along with more neutrons and energy. The neutrons bombard other uranium atoms releasing more energy and more neutrons and the reaction continues.

    4.7.1: Nuclear fuel processing

    Uranium is a naturally occurring radioactive element that decays into daughter isotopes (see chapter 1 for a review of isotopes), releasing radiation energy in the process. There are three naturally occurring isotopes of uranium almost all (99.27 %) of which is uranium-238 (U238); the remainder consists of U-235 (0.72 %) and U-234 (0.006 %). U-235 is the preferred nuclear fuel because when its atoms are split (fissioned), they not only emit heat and high energy radiation but also enough neutrons to maintain a chain reaction and provide energy to power a nuclear power plant. Uranium is found in rocks all over the world but is relatively rare and the supply is finite making it a nonrenewable energy source.

    Uranium usually occurs in combination with small amounts of other elements and once it is mined, the U-235 must be extracted and processed before it can be used as a fuel in a nuclear power plant to generate electricity. The process begins with exploration for uranium and the development of mines to extract the discovered ore (ore refers to rock that contains minerals of economic importance). Mining is either conventional (underground or open pit) or unconventional, such as in-place solution mining or heap leaching, which use liquid solvents to dissolve and extract the ore. Mined uranium ore (Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\)A) typically yields one to four pounds of uranium concentrate per ton of uranium ore (0.05% to 0.20%).

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    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): A) Uranium ore B) Yellowcake (U3O8). Images obtained from United States Geological Survey (A) and United States Department of Energy (B).

    Uranium ore from a conventional mine is usually refined into uranium concentrate in a process referred to as milling. The ore is crushed and ground into fine powder that is then reacted with chemicals to separate the uranium from other minerals. The concentrated uranium product is typically a bright yellow or orange powder called yellowcake (U3O8) (Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\)B), and the waste stream from these operations is called mill tailings. Uranium ore in solution is also milled into yellowcake by retrieving the uranium out of the solution and concentrating it.

    The yellowcake then undergoes conversion into uranium hexafluoride (UF6) gas. This step enables the atomic segregation of the three naturally occurring uranium isotopes in to individual components. In the UF6 gas, the original concentrations of uranium isotopes are still unchanged. This gas is then sent to an enrichment plant where the isotope separation takes place and the concentration of U-235 is increased to about a 4% to 5% (compared to 0.72 % original concentration). The product, called enriched UF6 is sealed in canisters and allowed to cool and solidify before it is transported to a fuel assembly plant.

    The next step in the production of nuclear fuel takes place at fuel fabrication facilities. Here, the enriched UF6 gas is reacted to form a black uranium dioxide (UO2) powder. The powder is then compressed and formed into the shape of small ceramic fuel pellets (Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\)A). Each ceramic pellet produces roughly the same amount of energy as 150 gallons of oil. The pellets are stacked and sealed into long metal tubes that are about 1 centimeter in diameter to form fuel rods. (Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\)B) fuel rods are then bundled together to make up a fuel assembly (Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\)C). Depending on the reactor type, there are about 179 to 264 fuel rods in each fuel assembly. A typical reactor core holds 121 to 193 fuel assemblies.

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    Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\): Fuel fabrication process. A) Uranium dioxide powder compressed into fuel pellets. B) Fuel pellets stacked and sealed in metal tubes forming fuel rods. C) Fuel rods are bundled into a fuel assembly. Images A and B from NRC (public domain); C from RIA Novosti archive, image #132602 / Ruslan Krivobok / CC-BY-SA 3.0

    4.7.2: Nuclear Power Plant

    After fabrication, fuel assemblies are transported to nuclear power plants where they are used as a source of energy for generating electricity. They are stored onsite until they are needed by the reactor operators. At this stage, the uranium is only mildly radioactive, and essentially all radiation is contained within the metal tubes. When needed, the fuel is loaded into a reactor core (Figure \(\PageIndex{4}\)). Typically, about one third of the reactor core (40 to 90 fuel assemblies) is changed out every 12 to 24 months.

    The most common type of reactors are the pressurized water reactors (PWR) (Figure \(\PageIndex{4}\)) in which water is pumped through the reactor core and heated by the fission process. The water is kept under high pressure inside the reactor so it does not boil. The heated water from the reactor passes through tubes inside the steam generator where the heat is transferred to water flowing around the tubes in the steam generator. The water in the steam generator boils and turns to steam. The steam is piped to the turbines. The force of the expanding steam drives the turbines, which spin a magnet in coil of wire – the generator– to produce electricity.

    After passing through the turbines, the steam is converted back to water by circulating it around tubes carrying cooling water in the condenser. The condensed steam – now water – is returned to the steam generators to repeat the cycle.

    The three water systems (condenser, steam generator, and reactor) are separate from each other and are not permitted to mix. Water in the reactor is radioactive and is contained within the containment structure whereas water in the steam generator and condenser is nonradioactive.

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    Figure \(\PageIndex{4}\): A schematic diagram of a pressurized water reactor (PWR), the most common type of nuclear reactor. Diagram from Tennessee Valley Authority (public domain).

    4.7.3: Benefits of Nuclear Energy

    By using fission, nuclear power plants generate electricity without emitting air pollutants like those emitted by fossil fuel-fired power plants. This means that financial costs related to chronic health problems caused by air pollutants such as particulate material, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides and ozone among others are significantly reduced. In addition nuclear reactors do not produce carbon dioxide while operating which means that nuclear energy does not contribute to the global warming problem.

    Another benefit of nuclear energy over fossil fuels especially coal is that uranium generates far more power per unit weight or volume. This means that less of it needs to be mined and consequently the damage to the landscapes is less especially when compared to the damage that results from coal mining such as mountaintop removal.

    4.7.4: The Drawbacks of Nuclear Energy

    The main environmental concern related to nuclear power is the creation of radioactive wastes such as uranium mill tailings, spent (used) reactor fuel, and other radioactive wastes. These materials can remain radioactive and dangerous to human health for thousands of years. Radioactive wastes are classified as low-level and high-level. By volume, most of the waste related to the nuclear power industry has a relatively low-level of radioactivity. Uranium mill tailings contain the radioactive element radium, which decays to produce radon, a radioactive gas. Most uranium mill tailings are placed near the processing facility or mill where they come from. Uranium mill tailings are covered with a barrier of material such as clay to prevent radon from escaping into the atmosphere, and they are then covered by a layer of soil, rocks, or other materials to prevent erosion of the sealing barrier.

    The other types of low-level radioactive waste are the tools, protective clothing, wiping cloths, and other disposable items that get contaminated with small amounts of radioactive dust or particles at nuclear fuel processing facilities and power plants. These materials are subject to special regulations that govern their handling, storage, and disposal so they will not come in contact with the outside environment.

    High-level radioactive waste consists of spent nuclear reactor fuel (i.e., fuel that is no longer useful for producing electricity). The spent reactor fuel is in a solid form consisting of small fuel pellets in long metal tubes called rods. Spent reactor fuel assemblies are initially stored in specially designed pools of water, where the water cools the fuel and acts as a radiation shield. Spent reactor fuel assemblies can also be stored in specially designed dry storage containers. An increasing number of reactor operators now store their older spent fuel in dry storage facilities using special outdoor concrete or steel containers with air cooling. There is currently no permanent disposal facility in the United States for high-level nuclear waste.

    When a nuclear reactor stops operating, it must be decommissioned. This involves safely removing the reactor and all equipment that has become radioactive from service and reducing radioactivity to a level that permits other uses of the property. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission has strict rules governing nuclear power plant decommissioning that involve cleanup of radioactively contaminated plant systems and structures, and removal of the radioactive fuel.

    A nuclear meltdown, or uncontrolled nuclear reaction in a nuclear reactor, can potentially result in widespread contamination of air and water. Some serious nuclear and radiation accidents have occurred worldwide. The most severe accident was the Chernobyl accident of 1986 in the then Soviet Union (now Ukraine) which killed 31 people directly and sickened or caused cancer in thousands more. The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster (2011) in Japan was caused by a 9.0 magnitude earthquake that shut down power supply and a tsunami that flooded the plant’s emergency power supply. This resulted in the release of radioactivity although it did not directly result in any deaths at the time of the disaster. Another nuclear accident was the Three Mile Island accident (1979) in Pennsylvania, USA. This accident resulted in a near disastrous core meltdown that was due to a combination of human error and mechanical failure but did not result in any deaths and no cancers or otherwise have been found in follow up studies of this accident. While there are potentially devastating consequences to a nuclear meltdown, the likelihood of one occurring is extremely small. After every meltdown, including the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi disaster, new international regulations were put in place to prevent such an event from occurring again.

    The processes for mining and refining uranium ore and making reactor fuel require large amounts of energy. Nuclear power plants have large amounts of metal and concrete, which also require large amounts of energy to manufacture. If fossil fuels are used for mining and refining uranium ore or in constructing the nuclear plant, then the emissions from burning those fuels could be associated with the electricity that nuclear power plants generate.