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Nuclear Energy

Nuclear Power

Nuclear-based power is obtained through the controlled use of nuclear reactions. Much of this power either comes from fission, or from radioactive decay.

Fission of heavy elements can release substantial amounts of energy. In this process, the nucleus of a heavy atom splits into two or more smaller nuclei. Fission can also be triggered, under certain circumstances, by the bombardment of a free neutron. This can cause a chain reaction that can produce lots of energy when performed in a controlled environment, such as a nuclear reactor.

Radioactive decay involves the decay of a naturally-unstable atom, producing a new daughter nucleus and radioactive particles from a larger parent nucleus.

Development History

During the Second World War, nuclear energy systems were being rapidly developed, mainly for the purpose of nuclear weapons. In the 1950's, the focus was changed toward generating electricity from nuclear power plants. In the early decades, nuclear capacity rose rapidly, until the '70s and '80s, when contruction costs started rising and fossil fuel prices began falling. Since then, nuclear power has largely fallen out of favor, partially due to the accidents at Three Mile Island in 1979 and Chernobyl in 1986.

As of 2004, there were 104 commercial nuclear power plants in the US. This provies about 20% of our nation's power. The US is slowly building more nuclear reactors, and many other countries are joining suit.