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Energy resources: Nuclear energy

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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. Energy resources: Nuclear energy is a free course that considers the advantages and limitations of generating this power and the environmental and security issues that the process raises.

After studying this course, 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.

By: The Open University

  • Duration 14 hours
  • Updated Tuesday 22nd March 2016
  • Intermediate level
  • Posted under Environmental Science
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Energy resources: Nuclear energy

Introduction

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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 course 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 OpenLearn course provides a sample of level 2 study in Science [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)]

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