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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.

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 subject area [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] .