options of energy generation we have ever adopted. A few tragic accidents with effects lasting until the present day occurred in recent history. Perhaps the scariest one with losses of lives, the explosion of reactor in Chernobyl in 1986, is the best example of severe consequences of radioactivity on living organisms. Besides 30 men who died directly after the accident, the health of over 1 million of people was affected by radiation. An unusually high number of children in the surrounding area were diagnosed with thyroid cancer in the past three decades¹.
While the probability of a recurrence of such an accident is small, the scale of the damage to the environment and our health would be catastrophic. But despite the risk, some of the world’s leading economies still use nuclear power to cover a significant portion of their energy needs. One of the strongest reasons in favor of nuclear energy is country’s independence on fossil fuels. Additionally, nuclear power supplies energy for a long time without polluting the air.
In this article, Greentumble will share with you a list of 15 interesting facts about nuclear energy to shape your opinion about this hot topic.
France produces so much electricity through nuclear power that it exports the surplus to other countries. France supplies 72% of country’s electricity from nuclear power and exports the surplus to Italy, UK, Spain, Switzerland, and Belgium. France is the second leading country in the world in generating electricity from nuclear power².
Nuclear energy produces approximately 20% of the electricity used by the United States. In 2016, the U.S. nuclear power plants generated over 800 billion kWh of electricity, which is twice as much as France has produced³, but the U.S. also wastes 25-40% of all electricity that is produced by the inefficient usage. A state with the largest number of nuclear reactors is Illinois⁴.
Improving the fuel economy of vehicles has a much greater impact on reducing the demand for foreign oil than the generation of nuclear power does. Better fuel efficiency can be achieved by reduction of the weight of vehicles. And surprisingly, lower weight equals also higher safety of passengers⁵. However, when considering a transition to electric cars, according to the World Nuclear Association, electricity needed to power these vehicles would come from nuclear energy in many countries, because renewable energy does not generate sufficient amounts of energy to readily cover this extra need for electricity. The report also states that if 10% of cars in France were electric, they would require 10% more electricity from nuclear sources.
The production of electricity using nuclear energy emits comparable amounts of greenhouse gases as wind, water or biomass energy. Solar releases three times more greenhouse gas emissions than nuclear energy. This makes nuclear energy more climate friendly than fossil fuel energy. Just for comparison, coal releases 30 times more greenhouse gases than nuclear⁶.
Uranium was discovered in 1789 by German Chemist Martin Klaproth while studying samples of minerals from all over the world. Uranium oxide was present in a sample from a silver mine in Jachymov, Czech Republic. After the discovery, Klaproth named it after the planet Uranus⁷.
In 1895, Wilhelm Rontgen first discovered the power of ionizing radiation when he produced continuous x-rays while passing an electrical current through a glass tube³.
The reliable electrical power necessary for long-term space missions can only be generated by harnessing the energy in the sun’s rays or through the heat generated during the natural radioactive decay of an isotope such as plutonium-238⁸. Plutonium has proven to supply steady source of heat without emitting radioactive energy to harm people or distort devices of a spacecraft. In fact, plutonium has powered Apollo missions to the moon, Galileo’s discovery journey to Jupiter and launch of numerous probes beyond our solar system. The current problem scientists are facing is the thinning supply of plutonium-238 with only 17 kg available for new space missions⁹.
There are approximately 447 large commercial nuclear reactors in operation today with 60 more being built and 160 planned. Interestingly, not all these reactors generate electricity, many are actually used for scientific research, or production of medical isotopes¹¹.
Nuclear fission occurs when an atom splits in two parts and then releases energy. This process can occur through natural decay or under laboratory conditions. Nuclear power plants harness energy by breaking the nucleus of atoms in controlled conditions, while nuclear weapons work on the basis of uncontrolled nuclear fission¹¹.
Nuclear energy can be produced through fission (the splitting of atoms) or through fusion (the joining of atoms together). Nuclear fusion is constantly taking place on the sun, as hydrogen atoms join to make helium. But nuclear fission is the process that takes place in nuclear reactors.
Uranium-235 is the most commonly occurring fissionable atom and is used in most nuclear reactors. Uranium can be found in the Earth’s crust in two different isotopes – uranium-238 and 235. The commonly used isotope 235 makes only 0.7%, while the other isotope 238 accounts for the remaining 99.3%. However, it is not suitable for nuclear fission as it decays extremely slowly. Its half-life is the same like the age of our planet¹²!
Kazakhstan has 50 vast uranium deposits. Nearly 40% of the world supply of uranium in 2016 came from this largest landlocked country. And the country has been one of the world’s major suppliers of uranium for the last 50 years¹³.
The energy produced by one ton of natural uranium is so dense that it equals the energy produced by the burning of 16,000 tons of coal or 80,000 barrels of oil¹⁴.
Naturally-occurring uranium has a 2,000 year use history of coloring for glass, producing a yellow to greenish hue. Until 1990s uranium glass was a fashionable household accessory. In general, 2% of uranium oxide were added to a glass mixture to achieve the specific shade of yellow and green¹⁴.
Uranium burns at an air temperature of 150-170 degrees Celsius (300-350 degrees Fahrenheit) and starts to melt from 3,800 degrees Celsius (6,900 degrees Fahrenheit)¹⁴.
These 15 facts illustrate how powerful our curiosity can be when trying to find solutions for our increasing demand for energy. Thanks to extremely dedicated scientists, we have been able to harness energy released when atoms are splitting, even though, it comes with a price of our own safety. Let’s hope that the same effort will be dedicated to the development of clean energy sources for sustainable future on our beautiful planet.