cover-photoThe ‘Nu Clear’: How to Avoid Meltdowns

On a scale of Nope to Yup, how much do you like the idea of a nuclear power plant meltdown? If you are in the “Nope” category, then this post is for you! A new form of energy is being developed that could one day potentially replace nuclear fission energy (think those tall curvy cooling towers), and is called nuclear fusion.

Nuclear fission generates energy by exciting radioactive uranium, and allowing it to break apart (hence ‘fission’). The fragments of the atom are still radioactive, and are slowed and cooled in the water bath that the whole process occurs in. Most of the time, fission is handled with extreme care, and is safe. The problems with fission, however are that the radioactive bi-products of the reaction do not decay quickly (unless you consider thousands of years quickly), and must be disposed of carefully. In addition, the process once started, is a chain reaction (meaning each time a uranium atom breaks apart is will set off another few uranium atoms), which must be heavily controlled. If the reaction rate increases too far, it will be uncontrollable, reacting faster and faster until a Cher nobyl-like event happens. So again, if you are in the “Nope” category of if you like nuclear meltdowns, then a system like this may not be your personal favorite.

Fusion, on the other hand, is a different story. A naturally occurring process in the sun, fusion occurs when two or more atoms collide and form a new more stable atom. Through this, heat is released. One of the simplest fusion reactions, the one used in fusion devices, takes 2 forms of hydrogen (you know, the one that puts the H in H2O), and heats them up until they form Helium. The reaction requires the heating and containing devices to be on for it to continue, so no runaway meltdowns can occur, and the end products are energy and a birthday balloon filler (helium gas). The only radiation that remains is the reaction chamber itself over time, but after the plant is closed down, it only takes 50-100 years for the site to be basically radiation free. That is substantially quicker! In addition, uranium is quite expensive and not very common on earth, making fission a difficult and increasingly costly source of energy, while the fuels for fusion can be found in sea water and the atmosphere at a much cheaper rate.

Fission is a tried and true method that has been around for years now, and fusion may just be learning to walk, but with time fusion will be running circles around fission. It is safer, more cost effective, and frankly, just cooler to look at (seriously, fuel cells in a bath, or shining ionized gasses racing around in a big magnet, think about it). Personally, I am in the “Nope” end of the spectrum for the question I first asked you, but am most definitely on the “Yup” end for someone who likes fusion, and I hope you have joined me here as well.

 

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