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What is Uranium (Nuclear Energy)?

Nuclear energy is energy in the nucleus (core) of an atom. Atoms are tiny particles that make up every object in the universe. There is enormous energy in the bonds that hold atoms together.

It is usually in a form of heavy metal, naturally occurring in most rocks, soil, and even in the ocean! It is found in many places in the world. Energy from uranium is called nuclear energy.

nuclear reactor for power generationPower generated from a nuclear reaction is similar to that of fossil fuels because they all use heat to turn blades (turbines) to generate power.

A nuclear power plant uses uranium as fuel. Uranium pellets are combined into large fuel assemblies and placed in a reactor core.

In that chamber (reactor), uranium atoms can be made to split, or fission, to release heat. 'Fission' is the process of splitting the uranium atom to form smaller atoms. A kilogram of natural uranium produces as much heat as 20 tonnes of coal. This is harnessed to make steam and generate power.

Uranium was first discovered by a German Scientist called Martin Klaproth in 1789. The chamber in which the fission takes place is called a Reactor. In this reactor, uranium fuel is assembled in such a way that a controlled fission chain reaction can be achieved.

It is believed that Uranium was named after the planet Uranus, and it provides the main source of heat inside the earth. Uranium (say: yoo-ray-nee-um) is NOT a fossil fuel. As of 2013, there are over 430 nuclear power reactors in 30 countries and many more are being built.

CO2 emissions from nuclear fuel is very low, even lower than hydro-power. Nuclear power plants are very expensive to build. It also produces very dangerous waste in the form of radioactive waste, even though the amount of waste is small (about 3% of the plants waste). These are usually disposed of very deep underground where geological conditions are stable and far from human or environmental exposure.

In 2011, a tsunami struck Japan and caused problems with its nuclear power plant in Fukushima. After that tsunami, there have been a couple of leakages of highly radioactive water from the plant's storage tanks into its environment. Radioactive materials are very dangerous to humans and the environment.

There are laws that check that countries with nuclear plants comply with safety rules and also do not misuse their plants for developing nuclear weapons.