How is nuclear energy obtained?
Nuclear energy is obtained by the disintegration of uranium atoms in nuclear power plants. Uranium is the main source of fuel for these installations. And why do we use this material? Because its instability generates reactions that nuclear power plants provoke to obtain energy. In some cases plutonium is also used.
There are two processes that generate nuclear energy: nuclear fission and nuclear fusion. A simple explanation would be to say that with both procedures the instability of the chemical element is provoked by separating (fission), or joining (fusion) the atoms. Fission occurs in nuclear power plants, and fusion occurs naturally.
Any method used will cause collisions between the subatomic particles and a loss of mass, releasing a large amount of heat energy. With fission in a power plant, this energy is converted into steam, and this starts a turbine attached to an alternator and as a result, electricity is generated.
Types of nuclear energy
As you have seen, there are nuclear fission and nuclear fusion processes to obtain energy. You have already seen that nuclear fission is the process undertaken in nuclear power plants. And what about fusion? Is it feasible? Let's take a closer look at both possibilities for obtaining nuclear energy.
Energy from nuclear fission:
We obtain energy from nuclear fission by dividing an atom into others that are lighter. This is done in power stations by provoking nuclear reactions. The reaction seeks to make the atom unstable through collisions of subatomic particles.
To make this easier to understand: The atom receives impacts by neutrons until one of them manages to coincide with the nucleus. This causes the atom to divide and energy is liberated, as well as neutrons and gamma rays.
Under the right conditions, this effect can provoke a chain reaction as a result of the neutrons released, providing they manage to impact with the new nuclei that emerge after the division of the atom.
Energy from nuclear fusion:
Energy from nuclear fusion arises from the union of two light atoms to create a heavy atom. This process releases energy that can be harnessed.
To give you an idea, this phenomenon occurs naturally and constantly in the sun, due to the fusion of hydrogen atoms. When they bond a new helium atom is created that emits a large amount of energy.
Is there a way to imitate this process using today's technology? Progress is being made. Nuclear fusion requires very high temperatures. The optimisation and creation of plants prepared for this process will beneficial for the environment. The replacement of uranium by hydrogen, an inexhaustible and clean source, is just one example.
Nuclear energy in Spain
Nuclear energy in Spain dates back to 1969, with the inauguration in Guadalajara of the José Cabrera power plant, better known as Zorita. This plant was in operation until 2006. At the moment, we have seven operational reactors distributed throughout the country, all of them commissioned during the eighties.
Currently, more than 20% of the electricity consumed in Spain originates from the nuclear energy generated in these power plants. All together they represent 6.5% of installed electrical power in the country.
In addition to nuclear power plants, Spain also has a factory producing nuclear fuel in Salamanca. This type of installation controls the supply, storage and distribution of uranium. The waste generated is deposited in a radioactive waste storage centre located in the province of Córdoba.