Mar 27 2011
The Part of ‘Going Nuclear’ that doesn’t go BOOM
When you hear the words “Nuclear Superpower” the first thing you’d probably think about would be an image from the Cold War with stockpiles of nuclear warheads to kill off the planet earth several times over. But that was then – come to the 21′s century, bud. Sure we still have big bombs in commission, but ironically we have also adapted the most destructive weapon for non destructive purposes – Energy.
So y’all are probably thinking “whoa, is that possible? Is its power level over 9000???” Sure it is! but you need to know how electricity is typically generated in order to understand how nuclear energy works. Heres a simplified rundown of how we get most of our electrical energy (in reverse).
- Electrical energy always comes from spinning magnets, or spinning some sort of shaft. thus: “Super merry-go-round” + magic = Electricity =
- We power this super super merry-go-round not with electricity (because that would be stupid) but my moving some sort of gas or fluid through a turbine. its like holding a propeller and blowing into it — more magical moving particles + turbine + more magic = super merry-go-round
- In most power plants this fluid is pressurized steam that is forced though tight chambers to get them moving fairly quickly. we get steam though the magic of heating water. — magical water + something that has hot air (like Mr. W, JK!) + even more magic = moving steam (moving particles)
So thats how we generate most electricity in a nutshell. its 1 part basic physics and 3 parts awesome magic. The only thing that differs between most typical power plant designs is how we heat the water. Obviously with a nuclear plant we use a nuclear reaction (not nukes). Here, instead of burning coal, we have a reactor core that is filled with radioactive material. This material can easily fission (the whole atom can be broken, yeah they told you atoms couldnt do that, well they can.) into smaller parts, however in such a reaction, although the number of particles is conserved, mass is not. the mass is converted into energy (heat). Here’s how that works:
- Fissionable Uranium 235 is fairly stable by itself, but with the addition of a free nutron it becomes Uranium 236 which is highly unstable. — Uranium 235 + magical nutrons = really angry Uranium 236
- The pissed off Uranium 236 decides it doesnt like itself so it splits into two smaller atoms in a bloody civil war creating smaller Krypton and Barium atoms as well as 3 nutron Al-Quida radicals. (this is a really hot situation so there is a lot of heat released)
- The 3 free radicals run around and upset other happy Uranium 235 and repeats this process. Its like a positive feedback loop, except it gets VERY hot. Enough to make many pots of coffee.
But enough wharbl garbl, if its so good, why dont we use it?
Unfortunately, the Al-Quida radicals overcome Uranium 235 and cause too many of them to fission too fast creating too much heat. This situation in a nuclear power plant is called a Meltdown or where the core gets too hot and the whole thing basically “melts down” into a a soupy mixture that spews out radiation unsafely; just like the one in Chernobyl in the 20th century when they couldnt shut down their reactor in time. But even today, we are still having problems avoiding potentially catastrophic events from nuclear power. A recent tsunami that hit Japan has crippled safety features in a power plant that has become unstable. Here, like Chernobyl, they cannot seem to stop their reactor completely, but they are making every effort to keep it cool with seawater. HERE’S a link to what is really going on out in Japan.
Aside from these “minor” problems in today’s current events, Nuclear power has a lot to offer us in terms of energy. FIND OUT MORE TOMORROW IN CLASS!