Nuclear energy is the energy that is present in the nucleus or core of an atom. Atoms are extremely small particles that are present in every matter in the universe. Nuclear energy is what binds the nucleus together. There is a tremendous accumulation of energy in the tightly packed nucleus of an atom. In fact, the power that binds the nucleus together is specifically called the strong force. Nuclear energy is used to generate electricity, but it must first be released from the atom. In the process of atomic nuclear fission, atoms are split to unleash that energy.
A nuclear power plant, also known as a nuclear reactor, is a complex system of machinery designed to regulate nuclear fission and generate electricity. The fuel source used in nuclear reactors consists of pellets made of uranium. Within the reactor, uranium atoms are forced to split, releasing nuclear radiation and fission products, which trigger a chain reaction of further uranium atom splitting. The heat generated from this chain reaction is then harnessed to produce electricity. The nuclear radiation meaning can be easily understood by analysing this process.
The majority of nuclear power plants employ thermal reactors that operate on enriched uranium in a fuel cycle that follows a one-time flow path. The fuel is extracted from the reactor after three years, at which point the percentage of neutron-absorbing atoms has risen to a level where the chain reaction can no longer be sustained. The used fuel is subsequently cooled for several years in on-site storage pools before being moved to long-term storage facilities. Although the spent fuel generated by nuclear reactors is relatively small in volume, it constitutes high-level radioactive waste. Despite its radioactivity diminishing over time, it must be isolated from the natural environment for hundreds of thousands of years. However, advancements in technology, such as fast reactors, offer the potential to shorten this period of isolation significantly.
Compared to other energy sources, nuclear power generation has one of the lowest fatality rates per unit of energy generated. This is because petroleum, coal, natural gas, and hydroelectricity have all resulted in more fatalities per unit of energy, primarily due to air pollution and other accidents. Nuclear power plants do not release any greenhouse gases. Nuclear energy and nuclear radiation have had a significant impact on various fields, including electricity generation, medicine, healthcare, and agriculture. Now, let’s delve into the critical uses of nuclear energy.
Nuclear energy is used to generate electricity that can be utilised to power various establishments such as homes, schools, and hospitals. The first nuclear reactor to generate electricity was situated in Arco, Idaho. The Experimental Breeder Reactor started generating electricity for itself in 1951. Subsequently, the first nuclear power plant, designed to supply energy to a large population, was established in Obninsk, Russia, in 1954.
Nuclear power plants are sources of sustainable, eco-friendly energy that do not generate air pollution or emit greenhouse gases. They can be constructed in either urban or rural regions and have a minimal environmental impact. The construction of nuclear reactors demands advanced technologies, and only countries that have signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty are eligible to acquire the necessary uranium or plutonium.
Hydrogen has the potential to replace fossil fuels in various sectors. It can facilitate zero or nearly zero emissions in chemical and industrial processes, clean energy systems, and transportation. If we can contain the leakage of nuclear radiation and its aftereffects, it can become one of the cleanest and most efficient energy sources. The global need for clean hydrogen will cross millions of tons by the end of 2035. However, hydrogen can only play a significant role in achieving deep decarbonisation if it is generated from low-carbon energy sources. In fact, there is sufficient low-carbon electricity production to generate it while also meeting other crucial needs, such as direct electrification of the transportation industry.
Nuclear energy is a viable option for producing large quantities of low-carbon hydrogen at a reasonable cost. Long-term operational reactors can result in production costs as low as Rs.200 per kilogram. The cost of hydrogen from newly built nuclear reactors is comparable to the cost of hydrogen generated by variable renewables like wind and solar in most regions. Nuclear energy can offer cost-effective energy and hydrogen to industrial centres. The stability and high power density of nuclear energy make it capable of producing a substantial, continuous stream of heat and low-carbon hydrogen. Nuclear energy lends an opportunity to reduce the costs of hydrogen delivery infrastructure. This will allow taking advantage of co-location with difficult-to-decarbonise industrial processes.
Conventional district heating systems based on nuclear energy extract heat from the secondary circuit of the reactor plant. This system enables the transportation of hot water up to 100 kilometres away from the plant to supply district heating systems. The distribution of heat to residential and commercial buildings through district heating is achieved through centralised energy plants. Nuclear district heating refers to the use of steam generated by a nuclear power plant to heat regional heating networks. Several countries, including China, Bulgaria, Hungary, Czech Republic, Russia, Romania, Switzerland, Ukraine, and Slovakia, have already implemented this system.
The dimension of district heating piping is based on the heat load and the temperature drop of the water in the system. Typically, the necessary heat for customers is supplied by adjusting the temperature in the supply network at the power station. It predominantly depends on the outdoor ambient temperature. Decreasing the temperature difference between the supply and return lines can decrease the flow rate of circulating water. This will subsequently decrease the pumping power and piping size. Conversely, a higher supply temperature at a nuclear-combined heat and power plant can result in a decrease in electricity production.
In order to generate maximum electric power, the ideal supply temperature for nuclear district heating is typically set at around 121°C. it can be increased to up to 148°C on the coldest days using boilers. The return temperature is usually around 71°C. In some cases, supply temperatures as high as 204°C have been applied for long-distance transportation.
Desalination Using Nuclear Power
Access to safe drinking water is a growing concern as drinking water is scarce in many parts of the world. Reports estimate that around 20% of the world’s population lacks access to clean drinking water. This number may further increase due to the growing population and shrinking water resources. Nuclear energy is already being utilised for desalination purposes. Its application in this field has huge potential for purifying sea water and other water sources for human consumption.
Nuclear desalination is highly cost-effective when compared to using fossil fuels. It is anticipated that only nuclear reactors will be capable of providing the vast amounts of energy needed for large-scale desalination initiatives. India, Japan, and Kazakhstan have shown the feasibility of combined nuclear desalination facilities. For 27 years, the Aktau nuclear reactor located on the coast of the Caspian Sea in Kazakhstan generated 135 MWe of electricity and 80,000 m3/day of potable water before it was decommissioned in 1999. In Japan, several desalination plants are connected to nuclear reactors. They produce roughly 14,000 m3/day of clean drinking water.