26 April, 2007

Nuclear Power

Nuclear power is the controlled use of nuclear reactions to release energy for work including propulsion, heat, and the generation of electricity. Use of nuclear power to do significant useful work is currently limited to nuclear fission and radioactive decay. Nuclear energy is produced when a fissile material, such as uranium-235 (235U), is concentrated such that nuclear fission takes place in a controlled chain reaction and creates heat — which is used to boil water, produce steam, and drive a steam turbine. The turbine can be used for mechanical work and also to generate electricity. Nuclear power provides 7% of the world's energy and 15.7% of the world's electricity and is used to power most military submarines and aircraft carriers.

The United States produces the most nuclear energy, with nuclear power providing 20% of the electricity it consumes, while France produces the highest percentage of its electrical energy from nuclear reactors—80% as of 2006. In the European Union as a whole, nuclear energy provides 30% of the electricity.Nuclear energy policy differs between countries, and some countries such as Austria, Australia and Ireland have no nuclear power stations.

Concerns about nuclear power
The use of nuclear power is controversial because of the problem of storing radioactive waste for indefinite periods, the potential for possibly severe radioactive contamination by accident or sabotage, and the possibility that its use in some countries could lead to the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Proponents believe that these risks are small and can be further reduced by the technology in the new reactors. They further claim that the safety record is already good when compared to other fossil-fuel plants, that it releases much less radioactive waste than coal power, and that nuclear power is a sustainable energy source. Critics, including most major environmental groups, claim nuclear power is an uneconomic and potentially dangerous energy source with a limited fuel supply, especially compared to renewable energy, and dispute whether the costs and risks can be reduced through new technology.

There is concern in some countries over North Korea and Iran operating research reactors and fuel enrichment plants, since those countries refuse adequate IAEA oversight and are believed to be trying to develop nuclear weapons. North Korea admits that it is developing nuclear weapons, while the Iranian government vehemently denies the claims against Iran.

Several concerns about nuclear power have been expressed, and these include:
  • Concerns about nuclear reactor accidents, such as the Chernobyl disaster
  • Vulnerability of plants to attack or sabotage
  • Use of nuclear waste as a weapon
  • Health effects of nuclear power plants
  • Nuclear proliferation

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