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Science

Problems with radioactivity

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Nuclear power

The main nuclear fuels are uranium and plutonium, both of which are radioactive metals. Nuclear fuels are not burned to release energy. Instead, heat is released from changes in the nucleus.

Just as with power stations burning fossil fuels, the heat energy is used to boil water. The kinetic energy in the expanding steam spins turbines, which drive generators to produce electricity.

Advantages

Unlike fossil fuels, nuclear fuels do not produce carbon dioxide.

Disadvantages

Like fossil fuels, nuclear fuels are non-renewable energy resources. And if there is an accident, large amounts of radioactive material could be released into the environment. In addition, nuclear waste remains radioactive and is hazardous to health for thousands of years. It must be stored safely.

Nuclear waste is given different categories.

Nuclear waste categories

CategoryExamplesDisposal
Low levelContaminated equipment, materials and protective clothingThey are put in drums and surrounded by concrete, and put into clay lined landfill sites.
Intermediate levelComponents from nuclear reactors, radioactive sources used in medicine or researchThey are mixed with concrete, then put in a stainless steel drum in a purpose-built store.
High levelUsed nuclear fuel and chemicals from reprocessing fuelsThey are stored underwater in large pools for 20 years, then placed in storage casks in purpose-built underground store where air can circulate to remove the heat produced. High level waste decays into intermediate level waste over many thousands of years.

Watch

You may wish to view this BBC News item (2006) about the arguments for and against nuclear power.

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