The process yielding nuclear power is called nuclear fission and was discovered by German physicist Otto Hahn and his assistant Fritz Strassmann back in 1938. This article is well-timed because the two discovered the energy generated by nuclear fission during a Christmas vacation.
Nuclear fission splits the atoms of heavy metals
The scientists discovered that splitting the atoms of heavy metals, specifically radioactive uranium, releases a tremendous amount of energy. This is the opposite process to nuclear fusion – the joining together of atoms – which occurs in suns and stars.
As it seems to be with many scientific discoveries, nuclear fission happened as an accident. It was a byproduct of experimenting with newly identified neutrons to explore atoms. In fact, the first incidences of nuclear fission were happening as the result of experiments a physicist named Enrico Fermi conductrf back in 1934.
At the time, Fermi theorized that the elements resulting from the neutron-bombarded uranium atoms were the first elements heavier than uranium. Another scientist, Ida Noddack proposed the byproducts were lighter, not heavier, but her input was largely ignored by scientific academics at the time. Instead, it turned out Fermi was creating elements that were lighter than uranium, including the remnants of various decay products.
Multiple scientists continued to bombard uranium and other heavy metals with neutrons, trying to learn as much as they could about atoms and this mysterious ocurrance. Otto, Fritz, and colleague Lise Meitner continued performing experiments and calculations, and finally figured out what was happening – that the uranium atoms were splitting in two, similar to the way a drop of water does when spliced in half.
As aps.org reports, “Frisch named the new nuclear process “fission” after learning that the term “binary fission” was used by biologists to describe cell division.”
Within months of their research being published (without any mention of Lise Meitner’s substantial contributions to the experimentation and theorizing), physicists and others realized this splitting of atoms had the potential to generate vast quantities of energy.
Unfortunately, the technology was first leveraged in the form of the widely disastrous and life-altering weapon known as the Atomic bomb. The controversial, secondary byproduct of their discovery is nuclear energy, which is now used to run nuclear power plants.
Nuclear power uses the micro-process of fission to generate steam power
As a source of “clean” energy, nuclear fission is used to produce mass quantities of steam that spins turbines, converting it the steam into electricity.
General Electric explains:
Nuclear power plants use low-enriched uranium fuel to produce electricity through a process called fission—the splitting of uranium atoms in a nuclear reactor. Uranium fuel consists of small, hard ceramic pellets that are packaged into long, vertical tubes. Bundles of this fuel are inserted into the reactor.
A single uranium pellet, slightly larger than a pencil eraser, contains the same energy as a ton of coal, 3 barrels of oil, or 17,000 cubic feet of natural gas. Each uranium fuel pellet provides up to five years of heat for power generation. And because uranium is one of the world’s most abundant metals, it can provide fuel for the world’s commercial nuclear plants for generations to come.
Currently, there are more than 450 nuclear reactors actively producing energy in 30 different countries. The United States has the most nuclear reactors, followed by France and Japan. In fact, in 2018, 80% of the energy used in France was generated by nuclear power.
Just as nuclear power generates tremendous heat, the debate about whether or not nuclear power is a clean source of energy continues to be debated. It is true that a perfectly designed, maintained, and functioning nuclear power plant is emissions-free.
The controversy is due to the reality that no system is perfect, and the effects of maintenance errors, malfunctions, meltdowns, or improper storage of radioactive materials have led to disastrous tragedies, like Fukushima and Chernobyl, where radiation levels will remain high for multiple generations to come.
Also, there is the reality that while nuclear power doesn’t require the burning or use of fossil fuels, uranium stores (like fossil fuels) are not renewable, and their mining, processing, handling, and disposal requires an extreme level of protection and safety protocols.
Protection from incidents related to nuclear power
The undeniable reality around nuclear power is that it is exceptionally clean – until it isn’t. Then, it is exceptionally harmful. For that reason, individuals who work in radioactive environments, and those who work or live in close proximity to nuclear power plants, are wise to remain informed, alert, and prepared for a potential disaster.
- Adhering to ALARA and the three principles of radiation
- Understanding the benefits of potassium chloride if a nuclear event occurs
- Taking careful protection by donning and using relevant radiation shielding products
- Investing in and using a dosimeter
The team here at Lancs Industries dedicates our lives and our career to providing radiation shielding and protection products, including customized radiation protection, to companies and radiation-vulnerable industries. Contact us to learn more about our products and services.
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