The four basic forces that exist in nature are electrostatic, electromagnetic, gravitational and nuclear. With each of these forces work is associated and the ability to do work is called energy. This energy in different forms may be stored, released, transformed and used in both natural and non natural processes.
Energy is fundamental to all human endeavors. Even nature is viewed in terms of energy and matter. According to the law of conservation of energy, energy can neither be created nor be destroyed; it can only be changed from one form to another. The connection between energy and matter is given by Einstein’s special theory of Relativity. It predicts that matter and energy are equivalent i.e. matter can be converted into energy and vice versa. Although Einstein’s mass energy relation is completely general, it is specifically important to calculate the release of energy by nuclear means called Nuclear energy. Aim of this article is to discuss the development of nuclear energy and its peaceful and beneficial applications.
Nuclear Energy is a result of heat released during the nuclear reaction. The most important methods of generating nuclear energy are nuclear fusion and nuclear fission. In nuclear fission, the nucleus of heavy atom (i.e Uranium, Plutonium or Thorium) when bombarded with low energy neutrons split apart into lighter nuclei with the release of tremendous amount of energy. On the other hand in nuclear fusion, nuclei of lighter atoms (hydrogen, deuterium, tritium) combine to form a larger nuclei with the release of energy. The energy released during a nuclear reaction is more in fission as compared to fusion as shown by the equations. A series of fission reactions is called a chain reaction. A continuous chain reaction under controlled conditions is called self sustaining chain reaction which creates a huge amount of heat and is used to generate electricity through nuclear power plants. On the other hand, fusion reactions are helpful to create new radioactive elements which are further helpful in medical science.
In the years just before and during world war-II, nuclear research mainly focused on the defense weapons. The first nuclear reactor was developed as an effective weapon for use in world war-II under the code name Manhattan project. However some scientists worked on making breeder reactors which would produce more fissionable material than they would use in the chain reaction. In 1946, Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) authorized the construction of experimental Breeder reactor. This reactor generated first electricity from nuclear energy in 1951. An important use of nuclear energy is the generation of electricity for commercial use. The first commercial electricity generating plant powered by nuclear energy used ordinary water to cool the reactor core during the chain reaction. This reactor was located in shipping port, Pennsylvania. After shipping port reactor became operational, private industry became more and more involved in developing the light water reactors.
In 1960s, the nuclear power industry in US grew rapidly. This new form of electricity production was seen as economical, environmental friendly and safe. In 1990s the US had twice as many operating nuclear power plants as any other country. During this period nuclear energy supplied almost 22% of the electricity produced in the US. At the end of 1991, 31 other countries developed nuclear power plants for commercial purposes. That was an impressive worldwide commitment to nuclear power technology. But the major concern grew over certain nuclear issues such as reactor safety, nuclear waste management and other environmental and health considerations. However large scale use of nuclear energy is prohibitive due to high cost of installation of nuclear power plants, high risks of environment contamination, nuclear waste management and limited availability of uranium etc. Since the nuclear energy is involved in both weapons and commercial power, it may become a ready target for attack. Here we can take an example of Ukraine Russia war that is heightening nuclear fears on two fronts and in fact all over the world. Moreover, use of nuclear weapons cause long lasting health effects such as psychic trauma, genetic damage, non-healing wounds, skin infestations, gastrointestinal infections etc. Due to these issues its inclusion in the renewable energy list is a subject of major interest.
As we know there is always the other side of the coin. After years of research, US government encouraged the development of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. On the positive side, the presence of nuclear weapons works as a shield for the security of nation. Scientists have successfully applied nuclear technology to number of medical, industrial, food, agriculture and scientific applications. On commercial front, nuclear energy is used for the generation of electricity. Doctors use radioisotopes to enhance the traditional medical treatments and to identify the cause of various diseases. Archaeologists use nuclear techniques to date prehistoric objects accurately and to locate the structural defects in buildings and statues. In industries, radioisotopes are used for measuring microscopic thickness, detecting irregularities in metal casings and testing welds. In preservation of food, controlled nuclear irradiation is used which causes less vitamin and nutrients loss.
US department of energy has undertaken number of joint efforts with the nuclear industry to look into these issues and developed the next generation of nuclear power plants. These plants are being designed to be more efficient and safer and fulfill all the licensing requirements. Moreover engineers and scientists developed new methods and places to store the radioactive waste produced by nuclear power plants. The motive was to keep the waste away from the environment and people for long period of time. So although nuclear technology has some drawbacks yet it has benefitted the mankind in several ways. The future of nuclear science and technology will depend on the advanced engineering and scientific research.