Turn on a light, drive a car, take a bus or even make a meal. There is one thing that all of these activities have in common, they all use energy. In America, there are many different sources that contribute to providing everyone with the energy that is used everyday. Before I continue, I want you to guess the top four energy sources that are used to produce electricity in the United States. If you guessed, natural gas, coal, nuclear and hydroelectric, you would be correct. This information is nothing surprising. What can be shocking however, is the contribution of these individual sources to the total electricity consumption in America. Coal – 37.4%, natural gas – 30.3%, nuclear energy – 19.0% and hydroelectric – 6.8%. As expected, coal and natural gas are the two main contributors. What is interesting to note is that nuclear energy makes up for nearly 20% of the electricity production in the United States. The source of these figures and further information can be found here.
Nuclear power plants, when compared to other forms of electricity generation, have a very small impact on the environment. They do not produce greenhouse gasses and do not require any mining or drilling. The environmental impact of nuclear energy comes in the form of radioactive waste, transportation of this waste and the possibility of a nuclear disaster.
How does it work?
Nuclear energy can be produced in two ways, fission and fusion. Although they sound similar, they are entirely different. Fission is when an atom is split. This splitting of an atom releases energy that can harnessed. The mass of the atom before the split is greater than the sum off the masses of the fragments left after the split takes place. This lost mass is where the energy comes from. This is the method that nuclear power plants use to generate electricity. There is another way for nuclear energy to be produced, this is through fusion. This is when two atoms are sped up to and collide to form a single nucleus. This process yields energy in the form of photons that are released from the collision. Think about this process as being similar to fission, but in reverse. Today, there are no power plants that use fusion to generate energy.
For a better explanation than I can give on the fission process, click here!