Nuclear Energy

Energy generated in a nuclear power plant is created when an atom of uranium is split and causes a chain reaction producing heat. This heat converts water to steam, which turns a turbine generating electricity. The water driving the turbine is cycled within an enclosed circuit, preventing any exhaust contaminated with radiation from escaping the system.

The nation generates 19% of its total electricity from sixty-six nuclear power plants spread across the country. The power of one uranium pellet in a reaction creates the same amount of energy as burning 150 barrels of oil.

Pennsylvania is very reliant on nuclear power for generation of electricity. The state is ranked second in the nation in nuclear generated electricity. Six nuclear power plants deliver one-third of the state's power. Next to coal, nuclear is the most used source of energy for the generation of power.

The Nuclear Energy Agency has recently calculated that the known accessible worldwide uranium resources constitute about 16 million metric tons. This will probably provide about a 230 year supply of uranium fuel for traditional type Light Water Reactors (LWRs) using 4% enrichment from the .7% enrichment contained in the natural uranium ore. Some of this fuel will be produced by diluting high-enriched uranium now being removed from decommissioned nuclear warheads.

The Agency also predicts that the number of years supply may yet double as a result of new exploration and the development of new and more efficient extraction methods. Separating plutonium and uranium from spent fuel in order to make new 4% enriched uranium fuel through reprocessing may also be employed to extend fuel availability by another 30%. Eventually, extracting uranium from sea water could make an additional 4.5 billion metric tons of fuel available which would represent an additional 60,000 year supply at the present rate of consumption in traditional fission type power plants.

Finally, fuel recycling using fast breeder reactors that create more fuel than they consume, as well as having the ability to use up existing reserves of weapons-grade plutonium that are such an attractive target for rogue governments and terrorists in their quest to build nuclear bombs, has the potential to reduce the amount of uranium needed to just 1% of the amount of uranium used in the current first generation of Light Water Reactors. These kind of fast breeder reactors could in theory duplicate the world's current annual nuclear electric output for the next 30,000 years. Also on the horizon are a new generation of safer pebble bed type reactors that will significantly reduce the already low probability of serious nuclear plant accidents to an unprecedented degree.

Beyond these fission-powered nuclear power plants, there is the intriguing, though still elusive, promise of future Nuclear Fusion energy plants. This includes the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) to be built in France that seeks to fuse deuterium and tritium nuclei as well as work done by a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) - funded team led by the late Dr. Robert Bussard near Albuquerque, New Mexico to build a small Electrodynamic Containment Fusion Reactor that would fuse boron nuclei and that would produce virtually no radioactivity because there are no neutrons left over in the proton-Boron fusion reaction.

The same would be true of proposals being worked on at the University of Wisconsin and others to build a reactor to fuse Helium-3 nuclei that would also have no leftover neutrons from the process itself, though both the proton-Boron reaction and the Helium-3-Helium-3 reaction might still create some very low levels of residual radiation generated by side reactions in the walls of the containment vessel over its lifetime of use. It is generally believed that such comparatively low radiation levels in the containment walls would make cleanup of decommissioned fusion reactors much easier to deal with than the higher level waste created by traditional fission type reactors.

The Shippingport Atomic Energy Plant, the first
commercial nuclear power generating facility in
the United States, operated successfully for
twenty-five years.