When we talk about nuclear energy, we refer to the energy that is concentrated in the centre (or nucleus) of an atom. This is used around the world to create electricity. Here’s a simple guide to nuclear energy for kids, covering what it is, what it is used for, how it is produced as well as some of its main advantages and disadvantages.
Nuclear energy is the energy found the nucleus (core) of atoms – tiny particles that make up every object in the universe. There is enormous energy in the bonds that hold atoms together. To make electricity, energy must be released from these atoms. This can be done in two ways: nuclear fusion and nuclear fission.
During ‘nuclear fission’, atoms are broken apart and the energy stored in their core (or nucleus) is released. Whenever energy is released, it turns to heat, which eventually boils water and produces steam. The steam turns huge turbine blades, which drive generators that make electricity. Afterward, the steam is changed back into water and cooled down. The water can be used again and again. Additionally, nuclear-generated energy releases no carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. \
Nuclear fission releases a lot of energy. For example, the fission of as little as 0.5kg of uranium produces an amount of energy equivalent to burning 3,000 tons of coal!
In the process of ‘nuclear fusion’, instead, energy is released when atoms are combined or fused together to form a larger atom. This is how the sun produces energy.
A nuclear reactor is the machine in a power plant where fission takes place. Currently, uranium is the most common chemical element used as fuel in nuclear power plants for nuclear fission since its atoms are easily split apart. During this process, tiny pieces of uranium get stacked up in long metal tubes, which form the core of the reactor. These rods are held under water to keep them cool and if they get too hot, they melt, causing radioactive material to be released. Radiations are extremely toxic and dangerous to humans and the environment.
Because uranium is a non-renewable resource, we will eventually run out of this type of fuel.
Today, nuclear energy provides about 10% of the world’s electricity, which can be used to power homes, schools, businesses, and hospitals.
However, we can also use it to create extremely dangerous and destructive nuclear weapons, also known as atomic bombs. The two most famous examples are the atomic bombs dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki during the Second World War, which killed and maimed hundreds of thousands of people. Because of the toxic radiations that atomic bombs release, their effects are still being felt today.
Because nuclear fuel can be used to create nuclear weapons as well as nuclear reactors, only nations that are part of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) – an international treaty that entered into force in 1970 – are allowed to import uranium or plutonium, another nuclear fuel. The treaty promotes the peaceful use of nuclear fuel, as well as limiting the spread of nuclear weapons.
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This question has been asked for many years. Nuclear power is very efficient; one small piece of uranium can produce as much electricity as 150 gallons of oil. Many see nuclear power as an alternative and clean energy source that could help us reach net-zero emissions in the future, but renewable sources such as solar and wind energy are far less dangerous.
Nuclear power plants must be taken care of properly to avoid a meltdown. The radioactive waste that is produced must be stored carefully so that it does not come into contact with the outside environment. In fact, any material that becomes contaminated can remain radioactive for thousands of years! Most nuclear fuel is stored underwater, but a few reactors store the older and less radioactive fuel in storage facilities located outdoors, protecting the structures with special concrete or steel shielding.
Nuclear power plants are designed to be safe, but accidents have happened in the past. In 1986, a very serious accident happened at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine. Radioactive gases leaked out of the plant and into the air, destroying crops and livestock and harming people’s health. A similar accident happened more recently, when a tsunami damaged the Fukushima power plant in northern Japan in 2011.