why is uranium used in nuclear power plants
Uranium is an abundant metal and is full of energy: One uranium fuel pellet creates as much energy as one ton of coal, 149 gallons of oil or 17,000 cubic feet of natural gas. It does not come out of the ground ready to go into a reactor, though. It is mined and processed to create nuclear fuel. How Is Nuclear Fuel Made? Before uranium goes into a reactor, it must undergo four major processing steps to take it from its raw state to usable nuclear fuel: mining and milling, conversion, enrichment and fuel fabrication. First, uranium is mined with conventional methods or by in-situ leach mining, where carbonated water is shot into underground deposits and piped up to the surface. The worldwide supply of uranium is diverse, coming primarily from Kazakhstan, Canada, Australia, Niger, Namibia, Russia and the western United States as well. To sustain the chain reaction necessary to run a reactor, the uranium will need a high enough concentration of a specific isotope, uranium-235. Natural uranium is converted into several different forms to prepare it for enrichment. Special facilities enrich the uranium so that it can be used in a nuclear reactor. The major commercial fuel enrichment facilities are in the United States, France, Germany, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and Russia. The enriched uranium is converted again into a powder and then pressed into fuel pellets.
The fuel fabricator loads these pellets into sets of closed metal tubes called fuel assemblies, which are used in nuclear reactors. What Happens to Nuclear Fuel After It s Been in a Reactor? A single fuel assembly spends about five years in a reactor on average, powering the system that generates electricity. Typically, every 18 to 24 months, a nuclear plant stops generating electricity to replace a third of its fuel assemblies. The removed assemblies are placed in a spent fuel pool where they cool over time. The radioactive byproducts remain contained in the used fuel assemblies. After the used fuel assemblies have cooled to the point that they no longer need to be stored underwater, they are removed from the pools and safely stored at the plant in large containers made of steel-reinforced concrete. Every nuclear plant stores used fuel as the industry awaits the completion of either a consolidated interim storage site or permanent disposal repository by the federal government.
Nuclear plants split atoms to boil water into steam. The steam turns a turbine to generate electricity. It takes sophisticated equipment and a highly trained workforce to make it happen, but it s that simple. How Is Nuclear Energy Used to Produce Electricity? In most power plants, you need to spin a turbine to generate electricity.
Coal, natural gas, oil and nuclear energy use their fuel to turn water into steam and use that steam to turn the turbine. Nuclear plants are different because they do not burn anything to create steam. Instead, they split uranium atoms in a process called fission. As a result, unlike other energy sources, nuclear power plants do not release carbon or pollutants like nitrogen and sulfur oxides into the air. Nuclear reactors are designed to sustain an ongoing chain reaction of fission; they are filled with a specially designed, and surrounded by water, which facilitates the process. When the reactor starts, uranium atoms will split, releasing neutrons and heat. Those neutrons will hit other uranium atoms causing them to split and continue the process, generating more neutrons and more heat. This heat is used to create the steam that will spin a turbine, which powers a generator to make electricity. The nuclear reactors currently operating in the United States are either boiling water reactors or pressurized water reactors. The names can be a bit misleading: Both use steam to power a generator, but the difference is how they create it. A boiling water reactor heats up the water in the reactor until it boils into steam and spins the turbine. A pressurized water reactor heats up the water in the reactor too.
However, that water is kept under pressure so it doesn t boil and is piped to another supply of water that becomes steam and spins the turbine. to reach remote and developing areas, be more efficient, reduce and possibly even recycle waste, and even turn seawater into drinking water. Advanced reactors include many types of reactors, including small modular reactors (SMRs), now in development. Several of these new designs do not use water for cooling; instead they use other materials like liquid metal, molten salt or helium to transfer heat to a separate supply of water and make steam. SMRs are advanced reactors that produce 300 megawatts or less of electricity. They will be less costly to construct and can be built in factories and shipped to where they are needed, so they can help power remote areas or developing nations with carbon-free energy. SMRs also can scale in power output to meet electricity demand, making them ideal partners to support intermittent renewable energy sources. Some advanced reactors will operate at higher temperatures or lower pressures than traditional nuclear reactors. They also will offer other applications like water desalination and hydrogen production. Other reactors will be very fuel efficient by producing less waste or by having extended fuel cycles and not having to stop and refuel for up to 20 years.
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