Uranium – Nuclear Energy
Nuclear energy is energy in the nucleus, or core, of an atom. Atoms are tiny particles that make up every object in the universe. Bonds that hold atoms together contain large amounts of energy that is released in the form of heat in two ways: nuclear fusion and nuclear fission.
How Nuclear Energy is Formed
In nuclear fusion, atoms release energy as they combine or fuse together to form a larger atom. For instance, this is how the sun produces energy. Fusion creates energy with less radioactive material, but it is harder to control the reaction.
Nuclear fission is the process of splitting apart uranium atoms in a controlled manner that creates energy. If the chain reaction of splitting the atoms is not controlled very carefully, an atomic explosion could occur (although the conditions have to be perfect in order for an atomic bomb to occur, and these conditions are not present in nuclear reactors). The fission process gives off heat energy, which is used to boil water in a power plant’s reactor core. The steam created with this water is used to turn a turbine, generating electricity.
Physics and chemistry played an important role in the discovery of nuclear fission, and today physicists and chemists work together with engineers to make nuclear power possible. Expertise in physics and chemistry are critical to controlling the chain reaction of splitting atoms.
Where Does Uranium Come From?
Uranium, which is used for nuclear reactions, is a mineral found in the Earth’s crust in spots around the globe. Major producers include:
- United States
- South Africa
In uranium’s early days as an energy source, the mineral was usually extracted in open pit mines on the surface of the Earth. This practice continued until the 1960s, when most mining moved underground.
Today, most US and Kazakhstan uranium mines use a process called in-situ leaching (ISL), which dissolves the mineral while it’s still in the ground and then pumping it to the surface. ISL mines last one to three years on average, with 60-80% of the available ore recovered.