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.

Nuclear 101. Student Energy, www.studentenergy.org


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. Scientists continue to work on controlling nuclear fusion in an effort to make a fusion reactor to produce electricity. 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 must be perfect 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.of the US.