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Nuclear energy: what it is and its advantages and disadvantages

You must have heard about nuclear energy on numerous occasions, but do you know what it is and how we get it? The following article will explain its characteristics and how it works.

Nuclear power is always a matter of debate. Its use in past decades has generated numerous opinions, although it has also provided some very useful options for all kinds of everyday services.

It enables us to obtain electricity efficiently, which already makes it very interesting for our daily requirements. Would you like to know more details about the possibilities it offers us?


What is nuclear energy?

Nuclear energy is what we find in the nucleus of an atom. And what is an atom? The smallest particles into which we can divide the chemical elements we know.

An atom is made up of three subatomic particles: Neutrons, protons and electrons. They can be differentiated by their electric charge: Neutrons have no charge, protons have a positive charge and electrons have a negative charge. The atom is always neutral as it has the same number of protons and electrons. What binds neutrons and protons together in the nucleus is nuclear energy. And did you know? It is possible to release this energy to obtain electricity.

Now that you know the basic theory you will probably be starting to feel curious. When did Humanity start to be interested in atoms? We have to go back to Ancient Greece to find the atomist philosophers. This philosophical school was headed by Democritus of Abdera and believed that the universe was formed only by these small particles and emptiness. As a result of his theories, Democritus is considered to be one of the founding fathers of science.

The atomists did not have the means to prove their theories, but science has evolved and we now have a better understanding of atoms and what can be done with them. At the end of the 19th century, and during the 20th century, different atomic models emerged which have enabled us to try to explain the structure of these particles. Research progressed until we were able to put into practice methods that would enable us to make use of nuclear energy.

“The atom is made up of three subatomic particles: Neutrons, protons and electrons. They can be differentiated by their electric charge.”

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.

Advantages and disadvantages of nuclear energy

As we said at the beginning, this energy provokes intense debates and there are opinions for all tastes.


Disadvantages of nuclear energy:

Nuclear power generates waste from the material used and there are concerns about possible accidents or leaks, since uranium is not a renewable source, at least not for now. One of the drawbacks of this material is its high radioactivity, as well as having a very long half life.


Advantages of nuclear energy:

However, the advantages of nuclear power, outweigh the disadvantages.  It does not produce greenhouse gases. It is a year-round energy that is constant and can be planned. Operating costs are also low. If to this we add that it enables high energy production with low fuel consumption, we are talking about efficient energy with clear prospects for the future.

Steps are being taken with regard to its recycling. Some European countries, China, Russia and Japan now have the means to reprocess uranium. Storage installations guarantee safe storage of the material. The power plants are also subject to very strict regulations and employ highly qualified personnel.

“More than 20% of the electricity consumed in Spain originates from nuclear energy.”

As you can see, we are trying to help you learn with us about the different ways of obtaining energy for your daily lives. There are also small actions you can take in everyday life that contribute to the welfare of the environment as a result of green energies like Endesa Única.

Your commitment and that of millions of people, together with technological and scientific progress, will help us achieve responsible and clean use of the energies available to us. The future stands before you, and you have a chance to play a leading role in a new way of doing things.

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