This chapter will cover the nuclear fission option as a future energy supply, and will essentially address the question: can nuclear fission plug the gap until the potential of nuclear fusion is actually realized? (The potential for fusion is considered in detail chapter 7.) To put this question into context, let us first look at some of the key issues associated with nuclear fission, which currently supplies around one fifth of the UK’s electricity. Most large scale power stations produce electricity by generating steam, which is used to power a turbine. In a nuclear power station, the principle is the same, but instead of burning coal, oil, or gas to turn water into steam, the heat energy comes from a nuclear reactor. A reactor contains nuclear fuel, which remains in place for several months at a time, but over that time it generates a huge amount of energy. The fuel is usually made of uranium, often in the form of small pellets of uranium dioxide, a ceramic, stacked inside hollow metal tubes or fuel rods, which can be anything from a metre to four metres in length, depending on the reactor design. Each rod is about the diameter of a pencil, and the rods are assembled into carefully designed bundles, which in turn are fixed in place securely within the reactor. There are two isotopes (or different types) of uranium, and only one of these is a material which is ‘fissionable’—that is to say, if an atom of this uranium isotope is hit by a neutron, then it can split into two smaller atoms, giving off energy in the process and also emitting more neutrons. This, and other pathways, are illustrated in Fig. 6.1 (Source: CEA). Controlling the reaction, so that the energy from the fission of uranium atoms is given out slowly over a period of years, requires two aspects of the process to be carefully balanced. 1. First, there must be enough fissile atoms in the fuel so that—on average— each fission leads to exactly one other. Any fewer, and the reaction will die away.
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