Nuclear fission, 1939 – Gave humans new power for destruction, and creation
Nuclear engineering is concerned with the science of nuclear processes and their application to the development of various technologies. Nuclear processes are fundamental in the medical diagnosis and treatment fields, and in basic and applied research concerning accelerator, laser and superconducting magnetic systems. Utilization of nuclear fission energy for the production of electricity is the current major commercial application, and radioactive thermal generators power a number of spacecraft. For the longer term, electricity production based on nuclear fusion is expected to become an increasingly important segment of the field.
Nuclear engineers design and build the processes, instruments, and systems that include radioactive materials. They might design nuclear power plants to generate electricity or to power ships and submarines. They also might design medical devices and systems that use trace amounts of radioactive material for diagnostic imaging and radiation treatment. This field makes extensive use of chemistry, biology, and physics in designing for such applications.
Nuclear engineers research and develop the processes, instruments, and systems used to get benefits from nuclear energy and radiation. Many of these engineers find industrial and medical uses for radioactive materials—for example, in equipment used in medical diagnosis and treatment.
Nuclear engineering work includes
- design/analysis from structural analysis and code compliance
- fluid/flow simulation and heat transfer systems
- design nuclear reactor vessel head components
- structural engineering, mechanical design, and plant shutdown support
Meet a Nuclear engineer
- Rebecca Steinman (Nuclear Engineer) – Senior Engineer, Advent Engineering Services, Inc. – a consultant; her firm uses specialized engineering knowledge to solve problems, often in a staff augmentation role, for clients. A nuclear engineering degree today is quite different from what it was in the 1960s and 70s. Back then nuclear engineering was primarily power engineering, but today nuclear engineering is everything from medical physics to homeland security to power production.
Uranium (U) (BBC podcast 42:00) – The fuel for nuclear power stations, uranium splits environmentalists down the middle. Is carbon-free nuclear a green energy option? Or are its global warming credentials trumped by the 10,000-year question of how to deal with its radioactive waste?
- waste-eating bacteria could help in nuclear waste disposal. Researchers say the capability of the newly-discovered “extremophile” bacteria to thrive in alkaline conditions similar to those expected to be found in cement-based radioactive waste sites, make it a promising candidate for aiding in nuclear waste disposal.
What’s the problem?
Unfortunately, along with being a source of clean power, there have been several accidents. The Three Mile Island accident occurred in one of the two United States Three Mile Island nuclear reactors, on March 28, 1979. The partial meltdown resulted in the release of small amounts of radioactive gases and radioactive iodine into the environment.
In the city of Chernobyl, a nuclear accident occurred on 26 April 1986 at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine. An explosion and fire released large quantities of radioactive particles into the atmosphere, which spread over much of Western USSR and Europe. The battle to contain the contamination and avert a greater catastrophe ultimately involved over 500,000 workers and cost an estimated 18 billion rubles.
- Ask – After the fire and explosion, how could the release of radiation be reduced or stopped? How quickly could this be done?
- Imagine – What options were available for containment? What ideas had been tested or used in the past? Could these be used at the Chernobyl site?
- Design, Build – What was actually done? How effective was this?
- Improve – What was learned from the Chernobyl accident? What improvements have been made to nuclear power plants to reduce or eliminate the problems experienced at Chernobyl?
- Uranium – a chemical element (a metal) on the periodic table. It has an atomic number of 92, which means that a uranium atom has 92 protons in its center, which is called a nucleus. Uranium is a dangerous substance, because it is radioactive.
- nuclear reactor – a machine that uses fission to generate heat. There are different designs which use different fuels. Most often, uranium-235 or plutonium-239 are the main components of these fuels. Most nuclear reactors are used to make electricity.
- isotope – one of two or more forms of a chemical element (with same # of protons and same atomic # but different # of neutrons or different atomic weights)
- power generation, medical physics, radiation, fusion, uranium, radioactive, atom, proton, nuclius
Here are some challenges for you to work on…
- Nuclear fission – understand nuclear fission. Look at the basic principles behind chain reaction and a nuclear reactor. Start a chain reaction, or introduce non-radioactive isotopes to prevent one. Control energy production in a nuclear reactor!