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Science 

Nuclear Power in a Nutshell

What is nuclear energy?

Nuclear energy is the potential energy of particles that are in an atomic nucleus. Protons and neutrons, which make up the nucleus, are tightly bound to each other. When the particles come apart voluntarily or are forced apart (in a process called fission), they release heat and radiation. Nuclear power, then, is the use of fission on large particles such as uranium or plutonium; the fission causes heat which is used to produce steam or heat water, which is then used to drive an electric generator.

 

The pros of nuclear power:

Nuclear power is very efficient; the heat released from 1 gram of uranium is equivalent to burning about 3 metric tons of coal or more than 12 barrels of oil. Proponents of nuclear power argue that it is a sustainable energy source that reduces carbon emissions.  Furthermore, this means that even after the cost of building the nuclear power plant, using nuclear power is still more cost effective than coal or gas-fired power plants.

 

The cons of nuclear power:

The nuclear waste produced during the fission process, such as the water used to cool the reactor and the spent fuel, are radioactive. Since it can take thousands of years for radioactive level of these materials to reduce to a safe level for humans and the environment, the waste must be stored in a secure place. If not, the high levels of radiation can permanently hurt people, animals, and the surrounding environment. In a similar threat, people against nuclear power are also worried about reactor safety. Should something go wrong mechanically, or a natural disaster hit, that radiation can be released into the atmosphere, such as what happened in Chernobyl and Fukushima.

 

There are many articles and books available which explain nuclear power and debate the pros and cons. Try some of these in the library’s collection:

About nuclear energy:

"Nuclear Energy" from the Encyclopedia of Global Resources, available through Salem Press.

The particle odyssey : a journey to the heart of the matter by Frank Close, Michael Marten, Christine Sutton.

Nucleus : a trip into the heart of matter by Ray Mackintosh ... [et al.] ; foreword by Ben Mottelson.

"Enrico Fermi" (the man who discovered nuclear power) from Great Lives from History: Inventors and Inventions, available through Salem Press.


Books that take a side on the nuclear power debate:

Terrestrial energy : how nuclear power will lead the green revolution and end America's energy odyssey by William Tucker.

Nuclear power is not the answer by Helen Caldicott.

Power to save the world : the truth about nuclear energy by Gwyneth Cravens.

Carbon-free and nuclear-free : a roadmap for U.S. energy policy by Arjun Makhijani ; foreword by S. David Freeman ; afterword by Helen Caldicott.

"Soviet Chernobyl Nuclear Plant Undergoes Meltdown" from Great Events from History: The Twentieth Century: 1971-2000, available through Salem Press.
 


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