- Current section: Introduction
- Learning outcomes
- 1 Nuclear energy
- 2 Nuclear reactions, reactors and power generation
- 3 The geological occurrence and extraction of uranium
- 4 Side-effects of the nuclear power industry
- 6 Summary
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Energy resources: Nuclear energy
The transformation of radioactive uranium and, in some instances, thorium isotopes...
The transformation of radioactive uranium and, in some instances, thorium isotopes provides vastly more energy per unit mass of fuel than any other energy source, except nuclear fusion, and therein lies its greatest attraction. The unit considers the advantages and limitations of generating this power and the environmental and security issues that the process raises.
By the end of this unit you should be able to:
- distinguish between energy produced by nuclear fission and radioactive decay;
- describe the principles behind nuclear 'burner' and nuclear 'breeder' reactors;
- understand the geoscientific principles underlying the enrichment of uranium in ore deposits;
- summarise and explain the hazards associated with nuclear wastes and their safe disposal;
- summarise the fluctuating fortunes of the nuclear power industry.
Energy resources: Nuclear energy
The transformation of radioactive uranium and, in some instances, thorium isotopes provides vastly more energy per unit mass of fuel than any other energy source, except nuclear fusion, and therein lies its greatest attraction.
The potential of nuclear fuels for energy production became a reality when the first experimental atomic pile, built by Enrico Fermi and Léo Szilárd at the University of Chicago, began functioning in December 1942. That led to the manufacture of fissionable material for the first atomic weapons. The use of nuclear power for electricity production explanded rapidly in the 1960s, a period when the costs of building nuclear power stations and of purchasing the uranium fuel were thought to be less than for fossil fuel plants. The nuclear industry received a boost in the early 1970s, when fossil fuel prices rose abruptly during the oil crisis of 1974: following the Yom Kippur war of late 1973, oil producers in the Middle East quadrupled the price of their crude oil almost overnight.
During the 1980s, however, the costs of building nuclear power stations rose inexorably as stringent safety requirements grew, especially following the accident Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania (1979) and the much larger one at Chernobyl (1986) in the Ukraine. By the early 1990s the global rate of expansion of the nuclear industry had slowed almost to a standstill and fuel got cheaper as the power stations became more expansive.
Today, with growing concern about global warming, the environmental advantage of nuclear power over fossil fuels is becoming increasingly recognised: it produces no greenhouse gases. It also produces no acid rain, unlike coal and to a lesser extent oil.
This unit looks at nuclear reactions, reactors and power generation. It looks at the properties of uranium, how and where it is mined, and why nuclear waste is potentially a serious hazard and allows us to consider the advantages and limitations of the situation in which we find ourselves today.
This unit is from our archive and is an adapted extract from Earth's physical resources: origin, use and environmental impact (S278) which is no longer taught by The Open University. If you want to study formally with us, you may wish to explore other courses we offer in.
This is an extract from an Open University course which is no longer available to new students. If you found this interesting you could explore more free Environmental Science course units or view the range of currently available OU Environmental Science courses.
Copyright & revisions
Originally published: Thursday, 2nd June 2011
- Creative-Commons: The Open University is proud to release this free course under a Creative Commons licence. However, any third-party materials featured within it are used with permission and are not ours to give away. These materials are not subject to the Creative Commons licence. See terms and conditions. Full details can be found in the Acknowledgements section.
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