Fundamentals of nuclear power

A nuclear power station generates electricity by utilising energy released when the nuclei of a large atom such as uranium split into smaller components, a process called nuclear fission. The amount of energy released by this fission process is enormous. One kilogram of naturally occurring uranium could, in theory, release around 140 GWh of energy. (140 GWh represents the output of a 1000 MW coal-fired plant operating a full power for nearly 6 days.)

There is another source of nuclear energy, nuclear fusion, which involves the reverse of a fission reaction. In this case small atoms are encouraged to fuse at extraordinarily high temperatures to form larger atoms. Like nuclear fission, fusion releases massive amounts of energy. However it will only take place under extreme conditions. Fusion of hydrogen atoms is the main source of energy within the Sun.

The reason why both fission and fusion can release energy lies in the relative stability of different elements. It turns out that elements in the middle of the periodic table of elements - such as barium and krypton (see uranium fission below) - are generally more stable than either lighter elements such as hydrogen or heavier elements such as uranium. Thus the fusion of lighter elements and fission of heavier elements are both processes which can yield more stable elemental products and this results in a release of energy.

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