Nuclear Energy: It’s All About The Science-y Bits

Sorry I wasn’t here yesterday.  Family is in town.  Ever take a class that just stuck with you?  Well, that was my course on the basics of nuclear energy during my one summer semester at the University of Wisconsin – Green Bay.  Day one, our professor made it abundantly clear that if we ever used the nu-CUE-ler pronunciation so common today, he might actually mark us down for it, then wrote the word nuclear on the board, followed by new-CLEAR.  Suffice it to say he made his point, at least for me, and the pronunciation stuck.  As did many other lessons.

Well, I got to thinking about this class again the other day when I glimpsed the phrase “renewable energy” yet again.  The phrase is a misnomer, because energy is inherently renewable.  Scientifically, energy cannot be created or destroyed, only converted into either matter, or other types of energy.  The use of the phrase in the context of our world today is meant to give the sense that energy is a finite thing, but this is not the case. If energy were a finite thing, the world would cease to be. Energy is constantly transferred and redistributed by both living and nonliving means, without the aid of human intervention. Energy is transferred when we eat, move, live, die. It is part of our world.

Anyway, back to renewable energy.  So, in the United States, at least when I first took this class over five years ago, my professor told us that prevailing sentiment was that nuclear anything was probably bad, and nuclear energy was not a great way to go.  I was a naive college freshman, and didn’t bother verifying.  Yesterday, I dug up this article from the Nuclear Energy Institute to find that actually, we might be looking at people wanting nuclear now!  Happy day!

I say this because it’s one of the most renewable sources of energy we could want.  To make a really scientific process very simple, there are two different kinds of useful uranium.  Enriched uranium, and depleted uranium.  Enriched uranium is the stuff in fuel rods.  It makes nuclear reactors burn.  And believe it or not, most nuclear power plants, like most other large power plants, are basically glorified steam engines.  Long story short, here’s a video, so I don’t take up another thousand words explaining it.

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Got it so far?  Cool!  Now here’s the really amazing part.  Depleted uranium is the used up fuel rods.  It can be turned into armor for tanks.  OR it can be shipped to a different kind of reactor, called a fast breeder reactor- wait, did I just get ahead of myself?  Okay, so nuclear power plants are all pretty much steam or boiling water turbine power engines.  The heating process is powered by the nuclear reactor.  There are different kinds of those.

Slow burn reactors, used in the United States, have enriched uranium fuel rods.  Once those fuel rods become depleted, they need new fuel rods.  Even then, they use only about 1% of the available energy potential of the fuel.  Another type of reactor, called a breeder reactor, can actually utilize nearly 100% of the reactive potential of the fuel used, and can utilize both enriched uranium, and natural uranium.  The NEI has a ton of information on types of reactors that you can check out as well.

It’s a fascinating subject, and I think instead of talking about energy itself as if it’s some mystical, finite resource, we need to start talking about the sources of energy.  Let’s be specific in our conversations.  I’ll see you all tomorrow, when hopefully, I’m more awake.

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