Environmental Science Nuclear Power Technical Summary Term Paper

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Environmental Science

Nuclear Power

Technical Summary

To eventually produce electricity with nuclear energy, a mining company must first find, purify, supplement, and make fuel-grade uranium pellets. Uranium is an element that exists in somewhat different forms in nature. All uranium atoms have the same number of protons, but not all uranium atoms have the same number of neutrons. The heat that is fashioned by uranium comes from nuclear fission, a process that causes an atom to split into pieces. When uranium naturally decomposes, it emits neutrons. Loose neutrons will have a collision with other uranium atoms and cause them to split. In turn, more neutrons are released that have a collision with even more uranium atoms. This chain reaction can keep expanding exponentially until a huge nuclear explosion takes place. However, in a Nuclear Power plant, this chain reaction is controlled such that it does not produce more heat than the containment building and the reactor equipment can endure (Energy Information Administration, 2007).

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There are two basic segments at the heart of a nuclear power plant. One major part is the reactor. The second major part is the generator. The reactor has a core, and the core consists of the fuel assembly with the tubes of uranium pellets, control rods, and circulating, highly purified water. The purpose of the fuel assembly is to place uranium in water so its nuclear fission will heat the water. The function of the control rods is to soak up more or fewer neutrons depending on whether more or less heat is needed. The more the control rods absorb, the slower the rate of fission. The closer the control rods are positioned to the fuel assembly, the more the control rods absorb neutrons (Childress, 2009.)

Term Paper on Environmental Science Nuclear Power Technical Summary to Assignment

The generator, itself, has two basic parts, the stator, which is stationary, and the rotor, which rotates. The magnetic field is produced using electromagnets carefully positioned at different locations in the stator. The electricity that is used to produce the magnetism in these field magnets comes from the same power grid that serves other industries and commercial operations in the area. Electromagnets are coils of wire wrapped around an armature or metal frame that helps to structure the magnetic field (Childress, 2008).

Spent nuclear fuel remains radioactive for hundreds of thousands of years. Nuclear power plants have to alter out about one-third of their fuel assemblies yearly, producing an estimated two thousand metric tons of radioactive waste. Thus far, the United States has stored spent nuclear fuel deep underground in the Yucca Mountain storage facility, but Yucca Mountain is filled to its current legal capacity. The quantity of nuclear material that can be safely stored using current technology is limited because the spent nuclear fuel generates significant amounts of heat even after its initial cooling period. Argonne National Laboratory suggests that there are three options for the storage of nuclear waste from power plants. One option is to find another place similar to Yucca Mountain that will be free of significant earthquakes and cave-ins for more than one hundred thousand years. The other two options are partial recycling and full recycling. Recycling nuclear fuel means extracting remaining radioactive isotopes from the fuel pellets, but this is an area of critical research. There presently exists no way to prevent nuclear waste from remaining dangerously radioactive for generation after generation (Childress, 2008).

With Yucca Mountain at capacity, nuclear power plants are storing their own fuel assemblies on power plant premises. There are tons of stored fuels at plants across the country. There are two basic ways to store fuel on premises. One is in cooling pools, and the other is in large metal casks. The cooling pools are about twenty feet deep with water, and fuel assemblies are moved from the reactor to the cooling pool by moving them along a canal. Once a fuel assembly is sufficiently cool, it may be stored in a cask. Typical casks are about the size of a semi-trailer. They have double metal walls and are bolted shut (Childress, 2008).


Childress, V.W. (2008). Resources in technology: Energy perspective: Is hydroelectricity green? The TechnologyTeacher, 68(5), 4-9.

Childress, V.W. (2009). Producing Nuclear Power. Technology Teacher, 69(4), 5-10.

Energy Information Administration. (2007). Energy generating capacity. Washington, DC:

U.S. Department of Energy. Retrieved from http://www.eia.gov/cneaf/electricity/page/capacity/capacity.html

In 2002, nuclear power supplied twenty percent of United States and seventeen percent of world electricity consumption. Experts' estimate worldwide electricity consumption will augment considerably in the coming decades, particularly in the developing world, accompanying economic growth and social progress. Nevertheless, official forecasts call for a mere five percent increase in nuclear electricity generating capacity worldwide by 2020 and even this is questionable, while electricity use could grow by as much as seventy five percent (Chapter 1 -- The future of nuclear power -- overview and conclusions, n.d.)

Today, nuclear power is not an economically competitive choice. Furthermore, unlike other energy technologies, nuclear power necessitates considerable government involvement because of safety, proliferation, and waste concerns. If in the future carbon dioxide emissions carry a significant price, though, nuclear energy could be an important and maybe even fundamental option for generating electricity. It is not known whether this will take place or not. But it is thought that the nuclear options should be kept, precisely because it is an important carbon free source of power that can potentially make an important contribution to future electricity supply. In order to keep the nuclear option for the future requires overcoming the challenges of costs, safety, proliferation, and wastes. These challenges will go up if a considerable number of new nuclear generating plants are built in a growing number of countries. The effort to conquer these challenges, though, is justified only if nuclear power can potentially add significantly to dropping global warming, which involves major development of nuclear power. In effect, preserving the nuclear option for the future means planning for growth, as well as for a future in which nuclear energy is a spirited, safer, and more secure source of power (Chapter 1 -- The future of nuclear power -- overview and conclusions, n.d.)

A vital factor for the future of an expanded nuclear power industry is the choice of the fuel cycle to include what type of fuel is used, what types of reactors burn the fuel, and the method of disposal of the spent fuel. This option affects all four key problems that confront nuclear power. "There are three main types of nuclear fuel cycle deployments:

conventional thermal reactors operating in a once through mode, in which discharged spent fuel is sent straight to disposal thermal reactors with reprocessing in a closed fuel cycle, which means that waste products are divided from unused fissionable material that is re-cycled as fuel into reactors. This includes the fuel cycle currently used in some countries in which plutonium is divided from spent fuel, fabricated into an assorted plutonium and uranium oxide fuel, and recycled to reactors for one pass fast reactors with reprocessing in a balanced closed fuel cycle, which means thermal reactors operated globally in once-through mode and a balanced number of fast reactors that obliterate the actinides separated from thermal reactor spent fuel. The fast reactors, reprocessing, and fuel fabrication facilities would be co-located in secure nuclear energy parks in industrial countries" (Chapter 1 -- The future of nuclear power -- overview and conclusions, n.d.)

Closed fuel cycles extend fuel supplies. The feasibility of the once-through option in a global growth scenario depends upon the quantity of uranium resource that is available at economically attractive prices. It is thought that the universal supply of uranium ore is sufficient to fuel the deployment of one thousand reactors over the next half century and to uphold this level of deployment over a forty year lifetime of this fleet (Chapter 1 -- The future of nuclear power -- overview and conclusions, n.d.)

Operational security is a major concern for those working in nuclear plants. Radiation doses are controlled by the use of distant handling equipment for a lot of operations in the core of the reactor. Other controls include physical protecting and restricting the time workers spend in areas with significant radiation levels. These are supported by constant monitoring of individual doses and of the work environment to make sure very low radiation exposure compared with other industries (Safety of nuclear power reactors, 2011).

One mandated safety indicator is the calculated likely frequency of degraded core or core melt accidents. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) specifies that reactor designs must meet a one in ten thousand year core damage frequency, but modern designs go beyond this. U.S. utility requirements are one in one hundred thousand years, the best presently operating plants are about one in one million and those likely to be built in the next decade are almost one in ten million. While this calculated core damage occurrence has been one of the main metrics to evaluate reactor safety, European safety authorities prefer a deterministic approach, focusing… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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