Nuclear power has a significant part to play in maintaining a balanced energy policy. It currently contributes to 26% of the UK’s electricity generation and a great deal more in countries like France and Germany. Nuclear power generation does not contribute to air pollution and can therefore help to reduce acid rain and global warming.
Nuclear power generation uses the fuel uranium to produce electricity. Uranium is a highly concentrated energy source that is available throughout the world in large quantities. 1 tonne of uranium can produce as much electricity as 2000 tonnes of coal. Once uranium has been used, it can be reprocessed and recycled to make more fuel. During the reprocessing, plutonium is given off as a by-product. The plutonium can then be used to generate power in fast reactors.
Electricity is generated in a nuclear power plant when an extra neutron is added to the nucleus of a uranium atom. This causes it to split apart and release heat energy. As the nucleus splits apart, several neutrons are released, which can then collide with another nucleus and cause further fission of uranium atoms. This leads to a chain of reactions. The heat produced during fission converts water to steam, which then turns a turbine and generates electricity. In a power station, the amount of energy release is controlled to provide an even heat supply.
Unfortunately, waste generated by the nuclear industry is radioactive and must therefore be disposed of with extreme care. The waste must be managed to present no hazard to humans or the environment. The radioactivity of waste however, will decay over time.