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Atomic Structure

Atoms are tiny particles that make up every object in the universe. An atom consists of an extremely small, positively charged nucleus surrounded by a cloud of negatively charged electrons. Although typically the nucleus is less than one ten-thousandth the size of the atom, the nucleus contains more than 99.9% of the mass of the atom!

Fig 1. Structure of Helium Atom

Nuclei consist of positively charged protons and electrically neutral neutrons held together by the so-called strong or nuclear force. This force is much stronger than the familiar electrostatic force that binds the electrons to the nucleus, but its range is limited to distances on the order of a few x10-15 meters.

Nuclear Structure

Fig 2. Nuclear Structure

The number of protons in the nucleus, Z, is called the atomic number. This determines what chemical element the atom is. The number of neutrons in the nucleus is denoted by N. Theatomic mass of the nucleus, A, is equal to Z + N. A given element can have many different isotopes, which differ from one another by the number of neutrons contained in the nuclei. In a neutral atom, the number of electrons orbiting the nucleus equals the number of protons in the nucleus. Since the electric charges of the proton and the electron are +1 and -1 respectively (in units of the proton charge), the net charge of the atom is zero. At present, there are 112 known elements which range from the lightest, hydrogen, to the recently discovered and yet to-be-named element 112. All of the elements heavier than uranium are man made. Among the elements are approximately 270 stable isotopes, and more than 2000 unstable isotopes.

Nuclear Power

Nuclear energy is energy in the nucleus (core) of an atom. There is enormous energy in the bonds that hold atoms together. Nuclear energy can be used to make electricity. But first the energy must be released.

The energy can be released from atoms in two ways:
  • nuclear fusion
  • nuclear fission.

Nuclear Fusion

Fig 3. Nucelar Fusion

In nuclear fusion, energy is released when atoms are combined or fused together to form a larger atom. This is how the sun produces energy. An example of a fusion reaction important in thermonuclear weapons and in future nuclear reactors is the reaction between two different hydrogen isotopes to form an isotope of helium.

Fig 4. Nucelar Fusion Example

This reaction liberates an amount of energy more than a million times greater than one gets from a typical chemical reaction. Such a large amount of energy is released in fusion reactions because when two light nuclei fuse, the sum of the masses of the product nuclei is less than the sum of the masses of the initial fusing nuclei. Once again, Einstein's equation, E=mc2, explains that the mass that is lost it converted into energy carried away by the fusion products.

Even though fusion n is an energetically favorable reaction for light nuclei, it does not occur under standard conditions here on Earth because of the large energy investment that is required. Because the reacting nuclei are both positively charged, there is a large electrostatic repulsion between them as they come together. Only when they are squeezed very close to one another do they feel the strong nuclear force, which can overcome the electrostatic repulsion and cause them to fuse.

Fusion reactions have been going on for billions of years in our universe. In fact, nuclear fusion reactions are responsible for the energy output of most stars, including our own Sun. Scientists on Earth have been able to produce fusion reactions for only about the last sixty years. At first, there were small scale studies in which only a few fusion reactions actually occurred. However, these first experiments later lead to the development of thermonuclear fusion weapons (hydrogen bombs).

Fusion is the process that takes place in stars like our Sun. Whenever we feel the warmth of the Sun and see by its light, we are observing the products of fusion. We know that all life on Earth exists because the light generated by the Sun produces food and warms our planet. Therefore, we can say that fusion is the basis for our life.

Nuclear Fission

 The word fission means to split apart. Fission is a nuclear process in which a heavy nucleus splits into two smaller nuclei. An example of a fission reaction that was used in the first atomic bomb and is still used in nuclear reactors is.

Fig 5. Nuclear Fission

An atom's nucleus can be split apart. When this is done, a tremendous amount of energy is released. The energy is both heat and light energy. This energy, when let out slowly, can be harnessed to generate electricity. When it is let out all at once, it makes a tremendous explosion in an atomic bomb. Example of this reaction is as follow:

Fig 6. Nuclear Fission Example

The products shown in the above equation are only one set of many possible product nuclei. Fission reactions can produce any combination of lighter nuclei so long as the number of protons and neutrons in the products sum up to those in the initial fissioning nucleus. As with fusion, a great amount of energy can be released in fission because for heavy nuclei, the summed masses of the lighter product nuclei is less than the mass of the fissioning nucleus.

Fission occurs because of the electrostatic repulsion created by the large number of positively charged protons contained in a heavy nucleus. Two smaller nuclei have less internal electrostatic repulsion than one larger nucleus. So, once the larger nucleus can overcome the strong nuclear force which holds it together, it can fission. Fission can be seen as a "tug-of-war" between the strong attractive nuclear force and the repulsive electrostatic force. In fission reactions, electrostatic repulsion wins.

How nuclear Power Plant Work:

Nuclear power plants use nuclear fission to produce electricity. To turn nuclear fission into electrical energy, the first step for nuclear power plant operators is to be able to control the energy given off by the enriched uranium and allow it to heat water into steam.

Enriched uranium is typically formed into inch-long (2.5-cm-long) pellets, each with approximately the same diameter as a dime. Next the pellets are arranged into long rods, and the rods are collected together into bundles. The bundles are submerged in water inside a pressure vessel. The water acts as a coolant. For the reactor to work, the submerged bundles must be slightly supercritical. Left to its own devices, the uranium would eventually overheat and melt.

To prevent overheating, control rods made of a material that absorbs neutrons are inserted into the uranium bundle using a mechanism that can raise or lower the control rods. Raising and lowering the control rods allow operators to control the rate of the nuclear reaction. When an operator wants the uranium core to produce more heat, the control rods are raised out of the uranium bundle (thus absorbing fewer neutrons). To create less heat, they are lowered into the uranium bundle. The rods can also be lowered completely into the uranium bundle to shut the reactor down in the case of an accident or to change the fuel.

The uranium bundle acts as an extremely high-energy source of heat. It heats the water and turns it to steam. The steam drives a turbine, which spins a generator to produce power. Humans have been harnessing the expansion of water into steam for hundreds of years.

Nuclear Reactor

There are Two Types of Nuclear Reactors:
  • The Boiling Water Reactor (BWR)
  • The Pressurized Water Reactor (PWR)

The Boiling Water Reactor (BWR)

Fig 7. The Boiling Water Reactor (BWR)

The Boiling Water Reactor (BWR) actually boil the water. In both types, water is converted to steam, and then recycled back into water by a part called the condenser, to be used again in the heat process. Since radioactive materials can be dangerous, nuclear power plants have many safety systems to protect workers, the public, and the environment.

These safety systems include shutting the reactor down quickly and stopping the fission process, systems to cool the reactor down and carry heat away from it, and barriers to contain the radioactivity and prevent it from escaping into the environment. Radioactive materials, if not used properly, can damage human cells or even cause cancer over long periods of time.

The Pressurized Water Reactor (PWR)

Fig 7. The Pressurized Water Reactor (PWR)

The Pressurized Water Reactor (PWR) keep water under pressure so that it heats, but does not boil. Water from the reactor and the water in the steam generator that is turned into steam never mix. In this way, most of the radioactivity stays in the reactor area.       

The steam from the reactor goes through a secondary, intermediate heat exchanger to convert another loop of water to steam, which drives the turbine. The advantage to this design is that the radioactive water/steam never contacts the turbine. Also, in some reactors, the coolant fluid in contact with the reactor core is gas (carbon dioxide) or liquid metal (sodium, potassium); these types of reactors allow the core to be operated at higher temperatures.

Watch Nuclear Power Plant Video

Nuclear References:

Fundamentals of Nuclear Science and Engineering Second Edition
Fundamentals of Nuclear Science and Enginee...
Introduction to Nuclear Engineering (3rd Edition)
Introduction to Nuclear Engineering (3rd Ed...
Nuclear Weapons: What You Need to Know
Nuclear Weapons: What You Need to Know
Nuclear Energy (Landolt-Börnstein: Numerical Data and Functional Relationships in Science and Technology - New Series / Advanced Materials and Technologies)
Nuclear Energy (Landolt-Börnstein: Num...


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