Nuclear Energy, Plutonium and Radioactive Power Part 1 Nuclear Fission

About the method of generating electricity by nuclear fission, a look at nuclear energy, plutonium and radioactive materials.

Leave On the Lights, but Turn Off the Plutonium

If sunbeams were weapons of war, we would have had solar energy centuries ago.--Sir George Porter, Nobel Laureate in Chemistry

Nuclear fission is the most dangerous method of generating electricity known to man, yet it could bring the captains of American industry enormous wealth even as it jeopardizes the safety of humanity. Through the massive production of weapons-grade nuclear materials, the civilian reactor program greatly enhances the risks of nuclear war, nuclear terrorism by fanatical groups, and nuclear-arms proliferation. In addition, the routine operation of nuclear power plants spreads throughout the world a vile spectrum of lethal poisons which can never be completely contained and which the environment cannot safely absorb. Fortunately, nuclear-fission power is as unnecessary as it is unjustified--we can meet the world's electrical needs without a single fission power plant, if we sensibly temper our energy demands.

Nuclear energy--that is, the energy inherent in the nuclei of atoms--is a broad term encompassing fission as well as fusion energy. The only kind of nuclear power generating facilities that exist today utilize fission. Fusion, a technology that might revolutionize life on earth if scientific barriers to its achievement are breached at a competitive cost, will not happen until near the end of this century, if at all.

Fission power results from the release of heat when uranium atoms, under bombardment by atomic particles known as neutrons, absorb a neutron and split into lighter elements like strontium and iodine. The splitting of the uranium atoms also releases other neutrons which repeat the process in a chain reaction. Heavier elements are also created when some of the uranium-238 atoms do not split but are transformed into plutonium-239 by the absorption of a neutron. Many elements created as a result of fission are unstable, meaning they lose energy rapidly by emitting particles. Known as radio-activity, these emissions are dangerous to living things because they can disrupt genes and tissues. Fission power is unique among all modes of energy in that no other energy technology adds comparable amounts of radiation to natural background levels. The heat released during fission is used to turn water into steam which, when directed against the blades of an electric turbine, creates electricity by the rotation of a coil within a magnetic field.

This process has mesmerized scientists, engineers, and bureaucrats primarily because of one startling fact: The fissioning of just one ounce of uranium releases about the same energy as burning 100 tons of coal. In pursuit of this dazzling energy cornucopia, many have been blinded to the problems and environmental consequences of fission.

Supporters of nuclear fission claim it is "safe, cheap, and environmentally clean," and that its risks are acceptable. They maintain that fission is a proved, available, "on-line" technology whereas alternative energies will not produce power soon enough to meet our needs. Advocates of alternative energies disagree sharply and assert that with only a small fraction of the funds now devoted to nuclear fission, safe alternative energy industries could be created within a few years, and they would yield as much energy as we will get from fission. These advocates are quick to point out how the development of the "gentle energies" has been stunted by the tremendous drain imposed by nuclear fission on U.S. energy-research funds.

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