How many different ways can nuclear power be used?
(Lansing State Journal, July 22, 1992)
The most familiar form of nuclear power is the sun. As you know, it keeps living things on Earth growing, keeps us all warm and drives the winds and ocean currents that make our weather.
Though the sun is powered by nuclear reactions, solar power is distinct from nuclear power.
The most familiar form of human-made nuclear power would be nuclear bombs. Nuclear bombs come in two kinds:
The only nuclear bombs ever used on people were those of the fission type at the end of World War II by the United States against Japan.
The more recent, and peaceful, use of nuclear energy is to provide electricity for homes, offices and factories. Nuclear power, in plants known as fission breeder reactors, hears water to very high temperatures, creating steam that drives large turbines attached to electrical generators.
So far, all nuclear power plants are of fission type, which means they use heavy elements, mostly uranium, for fuel.
France, the nation with the most nuclear power plants, is already reaching the practical limits for fission power. The uranium used as fuel is becoming rarer, and the toxic radioactive wastes are increasingly expensive to dispose of.
Scientists around the world are working to make fusion power plants possible. Fusion reactions use a much cheaper fuel (hydrogen), and produce cleaner wastes, both vast improvements over the current power plants.
A little-known method of nuclear power generation is called a RTG power plant. It makes electricity, but it is small, doesn’t use steam or turbines and is used on unmanned spacecraft, where weight considerations make nuclear power more efficient than huge batteries. The Voyagers probe, as well as the recent Galileo probe, are examples of space ships using this energy source.
T. McWilliams and Dr. P. Parker contricuted to this report.