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Nuclear Energy - The Practice


Nuclear energy is the usable energy extracted from atomic nuclei via controlled nuclear reactions and nuclear power plants have been used for commercial electricity generation for over half a century. In 2005, 16% of the world's electricity was generated by nuclear power (Source - Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI)) and as of July 2008, there were more than 430 operating nuclear power plants worldwide. In addition, over 150 nuclear powered naval vessels have been built.

It seems ironic that these complex, high technology, fission and fusion energy sources are only used as heat sources to boil water with the electricity being generated by decades old steam turbine technology.


The Great Nuclear Debate

Although there is agreement that new sources of clean, renewable energy are required, whether or not nuclear power is the answer is heavily disputed with the battle being fought on two fronts, economics and safety.

The facts are not in question. Both proponents (pros) and critics (contras) use the same facts, to justify their claims. Differences revolve around how the facts are interpreted, the emphasis placed on what is relevant or important and how intangible benefits and drawbacks are valued. There are also unknowns, mostly about the risks involved and our ability to control them.


This page covers the practical implementation of fission and fusion technologies and sticks to the engineering principles, leaving the debate to others.


A detailed explanation of the physics of nuclear energy release by nuclear decay, fission and fusion is given on the Nuclear Energy Theory page


Nuclear Fission Reactors

The only nuclear plants producing nuclear power commercially today use fission reactors. Attempts to generate power by fusion reactions have so far not produced commercial success. Fusion reactors are discussed below as are nuclear batteries.

All utility scale nuclear power plants simply use the reactor as a "nuclear boiler" to raise the steam which is then used to drive conventional steam turbine powered generators using the Rankine steam cycle in much the same way as in fossil fuel plants with much of the same equipment. Instead of burning fossil fuels to provide the heat source in the boiler, heat is generated in a nuclear reactor by the controlled nuclear fission of unstable isotopes of heavy metals such as Uranium.


The Reaction

The majority of fission reactors are designed to capture the energy released by the fission of Uranium-235 in a controlled chain reaction. Most of this energy appears as heat which is used to raise steam. Though fissions are initiated by neutrons produced by previous fissions, the process is not spontaneous. The reactor components and operating processes are described below.


When the reactor is loaded with new fuel rods there are no free neutrons (theoretically*) to initiate the reaction, even if there is a critical mass of fuel. The radioactive decay of the Uranium isotopes used emits only ionisation particles but not neutrons. A neutron source is therefore needed to get the reaction going.  Suitable neutron sources are alpha particle emitters, such as Americum-241, Polonium-210 or Radium Bromide, mixed with a lightweight isotope such as Beryllium-9. Alpha particles from the decay cause the Beryllium to transmute into Carbon-12 a releasing neutrons. Once the chain reaction is begun, the starter source is removed from the core to prevent damage from the subsequent hostile conditions in the reactor core.

* It is possible that there could be a few mischievous neutrons wandering around looking for trouble. Very dangerous if you have assembled a critical mass of fuel. A limited number of neutrons will always be present, even in a reactor core that has never been operated, due to spontaneous fission of some heavy nuclides that are present in the fuel.  Uranium- 238, Uranium-235, and Plutonium-239 undergo spontaneous fission to a limited extent.  Uranium- 238, for example, yields almost 60 neutrons per hour per gram, Putonium-239 about twice that and Uranium-235 about four times that. (Source - Neutron Sources DOE-HDBK-1019/1-93)

During refuelling in an operating plant it is also possible that there are unabsorbed free neutrons in the radioactive waste remaining from previous fissions.


Fission Reactor Components

Most reactors contain the same basic components, though the active materials used may differ imposing radically different design requirements on the construction of the ancillary components.

  • The Reactor Core
  • At the centre of the reactor is the core where the nuclear reaction takes place. It contains the fissile material in the form of long fuel rods which are usually placed vertically in the core.

  • Reactor Pressure Vessel
  • The pressure vessel usually made from steel, contains the reactor core, the control rods and the surrounding moderator and coolant.

  • Fission Fuels
  • As noted in the nuclear energy theory page, fissile materials are particular isotopes of Uranium and Plutonium.

    • Uranium
    • Uranium, the heaviest naturally occurring element, is 40 times more abundant in the Earth's crust than Silver and is about as common as Tin or Zinc. Naturally occurring Uranium is 99.2745 percent Uranium-238, with Uranium-235 the fissile isotope used in most reactors making up only about 0.720 percent, and Uranium-234 filling in the remainder at less than 0.0055 percent.


      The Uranium fuel is normally used in its ceramic Uranium oxide form which has a melting point of 2800°C and for most applications the percentage of the fissile Uranium-235 is enriched to increase the probability of neutron capture thus facilitating the fission process. Using enriched uranium also allows the reactor core to be made physically smaller than the core needed for an unenriched Uranium reactor.


      The target percentage of U-235 used in the typical light water reactors used for electrical power generation, is from 3% to 5% of the total Uranium charge. For weapons grade Uranium however the concentration is much higher at around 85% to 90%.


      • Production
        • Extraction
        • The initial processes take place near to where the Uranium is mined. Uranium ores are crushed into small particles about 1 cm diameter and treated in a leaching process with steam, sodium chlorate and sulphuric acid to dissolve the Uranium out of the rock.

          The resulting aqueous solution is decanted and filtered and then concentrated, first into an organic phase by treatment with various organic solvents, then further concentrated into a second aqueous phase and finally precipitated into a solid oxide form by treatment with Ammonia. After filtering and drying this solid Uranium oxide (U3O8 ) is known as yellowcake.

        • Conversion
        • The rest of the fuel preparation may take place nearer to where the fuel is used.

        • Enrichment
        • Only 14% of all reactors use natural Uranium fuel, whereas 85% use enriched fuel and 1% use other fuels.

          The process of "enrichment" to concentrate the percentage of the isotope U-235 in the fuel involves differentiating between the isotopes present in the refined material on the basis of differences in their physical properties. The separation process is thus based on the mass and size of the molecules and since these differences are minute, the processes used involve many repetitive stages to achieve appreciable separation.


          Practical enrichment processes need the fuel to be in gaseous form. The yellowcake must therefore be converted, via a series of chemical process steps, into Uranium hexafluoride UF6 which is the only compound of Uranium which exists as a gas at a suitable temperature. At atmospheric pressure UF6 is a is a white, dense, crystalline solid resembling rock salt below a temperature of 57°C and transforms directly from a solid to a gas at that temperature without going through a liquid phase. Liquid UF6 is formed only at temperatures greater than 64°C and at pressures greater than 1.5 times atmospheric pressure.


          • Gas Centrifuge
          • The UF6 gas is rotated at extremely high speeds of 100,000 rpm or more in a centrifuge and due to the centrifugal force the heavier U-238 isotopes tend to move towards the outside increasing very slightly the concentration of the heavier isotopes at the periphery compared with a slightly higher concentration of the lighter U-235 isotopes nearer the centre. The gases are withdrawn and the heavier gases are passed through a series of centrifuges to concentrate the proportion of U-238 while the lighter gases are recycled back to lower stages to concentrate the proportion of U-235.

          • Gaseous Diffusion
          • In the diffusion process the UF6 gas is passed through a series of several hundred sets of very fine membranes. Separation depends on the lighter U-235 isotopes passing more quickly through the barriers than the larger U-238 isotopes.

            The holes in the membrane must be microscopic (approximately one-millionth of an inch in diameter) and uniform in size. The porosity must always be high to enable high flow rates and the membrane must not react with the highly corrosive hexafluoride.


          After the enriched Uranium has been separated from the natural fuel, the percentage of fissile Uranium-235 remaining in the so called Depleted Uranium is reduced to between 0.025% and 0.03%, the rest being fertile Uranium-238 which can be used in breeder reactors to create more fuel.


        • Fuel Charge Production
        • Once the UF6 gas has been enriched the Uranium must be converted into a form suitable for use in the nuclear reactor. This is generally as Uranium dioxide UO2 since in this metallic oxide form it is chemically stable up to temperatures over 2000°C, high enough to survive the high working temperatures in the reactor core.

          First the gas is converted into a powder of UO2 which is subsequently sintered to form small pellets about 10mm in diameter and 10mm high.


        • Fuel Canisters
        • Fuel canisters must be able to withstand high temperature working and have high mechanical strength with low neutron absorption characteristics

          In large Light Water Reactors (LWR) and Pressurised Water Reactors (PWR), pellets of enriched uranium oxide arranged in rods of zircaloy an alloy of Zirconium. Early Gas Cooled Reactors (GCR) used magnesium alloy to contain the fuel but this was replaced in later reactors by stainless steel which is able to withstand higher temperatures.


        • Uranium Supplies

          The world's present measured resources of Uranium are enough to last for about 100 years at current and projected consumption rates.  This represents a higher level of assured resources than is normal for most minerals.  Further exploration and higher prices will certainly yield further resources as present ones are used up. 


    • Plutonium

      Plutonium is produced by bombarding Uranium-238 with both slow and fast neutrons.

      Also bombarding Uranium with deuterons, the nuclei of the Hydrogen isotope Deuterium containing one proton and one neutron.

      • Production
      • Huge diffusion plants like those used to enrich Uranium-235 are not needed for the production of Plutonium since it is produced in large quantities in breeder and other reactors and is relatively easy to separate chemically from Uranium.

        See also Breeder Reactors below.


  • Control Rods
  • A major safety system in nuclear reactors is provided by control rods of Boron, Cadmium or Graphite which absorb neutrons created by the fission process removing them from the active mass thus preventing further fissions from taking place. Because of their atomic structure these elements absorb neutrons, but do not fission or split. The rate of the chain reaction can be controlled by progressively inserting the control rods into, or removing them from the reactor core and the reactor can be quickly shut down by dropping the control rods into the core.

  • Moderators
  • The energy of the free neutrons must be within certain limits for for fission to occur. High energy neutrons emitted by the fission process move too quickly to be captured by the fissile atoms and so must be slowed down or moderated to increase their chances of causing fission. Water, heavy water and graphite are moderators which are commonly used in the reactor core to slow down the neutrons. Certain hydrides, hydrocarbons, beryllium and beryllium oxide are also used for this purpose.

    Note that some moderators can also act as coolants.

    • Thermal Reactors
    • Reactors with moderators are called thermal reactors.

    • Fast Neutron Reactors
    • Reactors without moderators are termed Fast Neutron Reactors because the speed of the neutrons is not controlled.

  • Coolants
  • The reactor core acts as a heat exchanger in which the coolant, which may be either a liquid or a gas, surrounds the fuel rods and captures the heat generated by the nuclear reaction. The coolant also acts as the thermal working fluid which is used either directly or indirectly to raise steam to drive a turbine generator.


    Coolants must be good conductors of heat with low susceptibility to induced radioactivity and capable of operating at high temperatures. A variety of substances, including light water, heavy water, air, Carbon dioxide, Helium, molten metals such as Sodium, Sodium-Potassium alloy, Lead and Lead-Bismuth alloy as well as hydrocarbons (oils), have been used for this purpose.


  • Containment
  • Reactors are contained inside a huge reinforced concrete casing often incorporating a steel inner structure which acts as a radiation shield and is designed to prevent the release of radioactivity into the environment in case of an accident in the reactor as well as to protect the reactor from external events such as earthquakes, aircraft impacts and deliberate acts of sabotage.

    The notorious meltdown of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor in 1986 was initiated by operator malpractice which inadequate safety systems failed to prevent. Because the reactor was not enclosed in a containment building, vast areas of the countryside were contaminated with deadly radioactive debris.

    By contrast, in the 1979 accident at Three Mile Island when the reactor core went into partial meltdown and was destroyed when the cooling system failed due to the loss of coolant, the radioactive debris were successfully contained within the containment building.


  • The Reactor Thermal Circuits
  • Cooling is another major challenge in reactor design. Heat is extracted from the reactor core by one or more tightly controlled, closed, heat transfer circuits and used to power a conventional steam or gas turbine generator. Many variations are possible.


    • The Rankine Cycle
    • The Rankine cycle describes a thermodynamic power cycle in which the working fluid is alternately vaporized and condensed as it recirculates in a closed cycle. It is similar to the Carnot cycle the except that it takes into account the energy absorbed and returned by the reversible liquid/gas phase changes which reduce somewhat the efficiency of the thermal cycle.

      The Rankine Efficiency is proportional to (1-TL/TH) where TL is the fluid temperature at the low heat point in the cycle the output temperature and TH is the fluid temperature at the high heat point, the input temperature. As with the Carnot cycle, the thermal efficiency is improved by maximising the temperature difference between the input and output points.

      The thermal cycle used in steam engines is an example of the Rankine cycle.




    • The Brayton (Joule) Cycle
    • The Brayton cycle, sometimes called the Joule cycle, describes the thermodynamic power cycle associated with the compression and expansion of a gaseous working fluid. Analogous to the Carnot cycle the thermal efficiency is maximised by increasing the pressure difference between the input and output points. The Brayton cycle is used to represent the thermal cycle used in gas turbines.

      In gas cooled nuclear reactors in which the gas coolant is used directly to drive the turbine, heat from the reactor increases the pressure of the gas in the reactor heat exchanger and the pressurised gas gives up its energy by expansion in the turbine.

      Like the Carnot cycle the Brayton cycle does not encompass a phase change and hence it has the potential for higher efficiencies.


    • Single Stage Heat Transfer
    • In single stage cooling systems the reactor coolant or thermal working fluid, either steam or in some cases gas, is used directly to drive a turbine generator.

      The boiling water reactor (BWR) is typical of a single stage system. It uses a single water circuit in which the steam is generated directly in the reactor core and used to drive the turbine.


      Nuclear Power (Single Thermodynamic Cycle)


      It is a relatively simple design in principle, characterised by the Rankine thermodynamic cycle, but it needs complex control systems to ensure safety. This has the disadvantages that mildly radioactive coolant from the reactor core passes outside of the containment building and that radioactivity can build up in the turbine. The Fukushima nuclear power plants in Japan damaged by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami were boiling water reactors.

      Despite the high technology steam generation, the system efficiency is still bound by Carnot's Law and limited by the maximum temperature difference achievable in the steam cycle.

      Typical system efficiency is 33% to 36%.


    • Two Stage Heat Transfer
    • For safety reasons a two stage system is employed to separate the thermal circuit used to drive the steam turbine from the primary thermal circuit which removes the heat from the reactor. The heat generated by the reactor is not used directly to raise steam to drive the turbine generator. Instead, the working fluid in the primary (reactor) circuit transfers its heat through a second heat exchanger to a secondary circuit which is essentially the same as the steam turbine thermal circuit used in a conventional fossil fuelled electricity generating plant but with the steam raising boiler replaced by the secondary heat exchanger. In this way the possibilities of escape of radioactive materials due to leaks of the coolant which has passed through the reactor core can be limited to within the containment building.

      This configuration also allows more flexibility in the choice of the reactor coolant so that the working fluid in the primary (reactor) heat transfer circuit may be water, gas or a molten metal.

      The added complexity of the double loop cooling system however introduces efficiency losses and extra cost into the system.

      The pressurised water reactor (PWR) is an example of a two stage system.

      Water at a very high pressure is used as the coolant in the primary circuit and steam is raised in a heat exchanger in the secondary circuit. The working fluid in the secondary circuit is not subject to radioactive contamination.


      Nuclear Power (Two Thermodynamic Cycles)


      High temperature reactors using molten metal coolants in the primary circuit may use Helium in a Brayton cycle in the secondary circuit operating at 1000°C to achieve very efficiencies of up to 60%.


    •  Tertiary Cooling Circuits A third thermal circuit is used in both the single and two stage systems to cool the working fluid at the end of the work cycle. This is typically an open cycle employing a conventional cooling tower as used in fossil fuelled power plants.


    The system efficiency is similar to the boiling water reactor at 33% to 36%


Reactor types

  • Thermal Reactors
    • Pressurised Water Reactor (PWR)
    • Over 60% of all installed commercial reactors are pressurised water reactors and like 85% of all reactors they use enriched Uranium as the fuel. The use of enriched fuel means that a higher power density is achievable in the core and thus better efficiency.

      PWR reactors use a two stage heat transfer system with ordinary (light) water acting as both a moderator and the coolant in the primary circuit. The water in the primary circuit reaches a temperature of about 325°C and must be at very high pressures of 1000-2200 psi (70 -150 bar or 7-15 MPa) so that it can not boil. It gives up its heat in a second heat exchanger which produces the steam in the turbine circuit based on the Rankine cycle.

      Typical output power is 1000MW with a system efficiency of 33%.


      Boiling Water Reactor (BWR)

      Boiling water reactors have many similarities to the more complex pressurised water reactor and are used in over 20% of nuclear power installations. They use enriched Uranium fuel and like the PWR they use ordinary light water which acts both as the moderator and a coolant but in a single stage heat transfer circuit. The coolant is maintained at a lower pressure of about 1000 psi (75 bar or 7.5 MPa) so that it boils in the core at about 285°C and the resulting steam is used to drive a steam turbine.

      Because of the low steam pressure and temperature the Carnot efficiency of the system is also low at. around 32%.

      Typical output powers are up to 1400 MW.


    • Natural Uranium Reactors
    • Enriched Uranium was not generally available in the early days of nuclear power development and reactors had to be designed to use natural Uranium as the fuel. Because of the low concentration of mobile neutrons in the unenriched fuel, this placed limitations on the types of coolants and moderators which could be used. The purpose of the moderator is to slow down fast neutrons to enable them to be captured by the fissile fuel, however many materials used as moderators also absorb neutrons thus reducing the probability of fission. For this reason ordinary (light) water is not suitable as a coolant or moderator in reactors using natural Uranium fuel since it absorbs too many neutrons leaving insufficient to allow the initiation of a sustained chain reaction. Coolants which do not absorb appreciable quantities of neutrons are heavy water because the Hydrogen atom has already absorbed an extra neutron to form the Deuterium nucleus and has no real affinity for absorbing another one. Some inert gases with a low neutron affinity and a low molecular density such as Carbon dioxide, Nitrogen and Helium are also used as coolants.


      • Gas Cooled Reactor (GCR)
      • Gas cooled reactors use a double loop cooling system with the gas coolant in the primary circuit and steam in the secondary, turbine circuit.

        Gases which are suitable or use in the primary cooling circuit unfortunately do not provide the capability for slowing down the free neutrons in the core and a separate material must be used to moderate the speed of the neutrons. Graphite is typically used as the neutron moderator in gas cooled reactors but Beryllium is also used. Early designs used an alloy of Magnesium, called Magnox to contain the Uranium fuel and reactors were called Magnox reactors.

      • Advanced Gas Cooled Reactor (AGCR)
      • Gas cooled reactors have the added advantage that the gas coolant can be heated to higher temperatures than water reaching as high as 650°C enabling higher plant efficiencies of up to 40% to be achieved. Higher temperature operation is made possible by cladding the Uranium-235 in stainless steel tubes but stainless steel tends to absorb neutrons slowing down the chain reactions so the fuel is slightly enriched to 2.5% or 3.5% to compensate.

        Conversion efficiencies of over 40% are possible.

      • High Temperature Gas Cooled Reactor (HTGR)
      • Higher Carnot efficiencies have been achieved using Helium as the coolant to allow increased the working temperatures and pressures. This in turn needed the enrichment of the Uranium oxide fuel to 8% Uranium-235.

        The high temperature reactor uses a double loop thermal circuit like the PWR reactor. Single circuit designs, based on the Brayton cycle, in which Helium drives the turbine directly are also possible. The Helium must be maintained at high pressure (1000-2000 psi, 7-14 MPa) to achieve sufficient density for efficient heat transfer.

      • Canadian Deuterium Uranium (CANDU) Reactor

        Also called the Pressurised Heavy Water Reactor (PHWR)

      • As noted above, heavy water absorbs fewer neutrons and so can sustain the chain reaction with unenriched fuel. CANDU reactors use unenriched natural Uranium oxide fuel in a two stage system similar to the PWR. The the primary cooling circuit uses heavy water under high pressure as both the the coolant and the moderator with temperatures reaching 290°C. As in a PWR, the water in the primary circuit must be maintained under pressure so that it can not boil.

        Efficiencies of 33% are typical but systems using very high coolant pressures can take this to 45% or more.


  • Fast Neutron Reactors (Breeders and Burners)
  • Unlike Uranium-235, Plutonium-239 is fissionable with both slow and fast neutrons. Nuclear reactors designed to use fast neutrons, using Plutonium as the fuel, therefore do not need a moderator. There are however extra demands on the coolants used in fast neutron reactors because they should provide efficient heat transfer and should not slow down the fast neutrons. This requirement can be satisfied by molten metals such as Sodium and Sodium-Potassium mixtures which are used for this purpose. Being transparent to neutrons, fewer neutrons are lost in the coolant which as a consequence does not become so radioactive. Molten Lead is also being used in some reactors since it has the added advantages that it provides excellent radiation shielding, and allows for operation at very high temperatures. It is also inert and thus safer to handle than the chemically reactive Sodium.

    Fast neutron reactors can be designed as Breeders which produce more fissile fuel than they consume or simply to as Burners which consume the fissile fuel.


    • Breeder Reactors
    • Breeder reactors are designed to produce nuclear fuel in bulk from more abundant non-fissile isotopes thus maximising the production of fuel. They can use slow moving neutrons from thermal reactors using Uranium-235 as the fuel to provide the required neutron irradiation, but they more commonly use fast neutrons from the fission of Plutonium-239, in so called Fast Breeder Reactors (FBR), as the neutron source.


      • The Reaction
      • Plutonium-239 is produced by neutron irradiation of non-fissile Uranium-238 as an unavoidable side effect in all Uranium fuelled reactors. (Uranium-238 forms the greater percentage of the Uranium fuel charge. See above) This reaction, described in the theory section, is a primary objective of the breeder reactor, (the other is power generation) and for its contribution to be maximised it needs to be maintained by fast moving, high energy neutrons which are more efficient than thermal neutrons in transmuting the fertile Uranium-238 into Plutonium. Since fast neutrons have less probability of capture than thermal neutrons, the more fissile Plutonium-239 is used in preference to Uranium-235 as the fuel to enable the release of enough neutrons to sustain a chain reaction. Furthermore since fast neutrons cause less fission than thermal neutrons, the production of fuel can be enhanced at the expense of the generation of power.

        Breeder reactors can also be based on slow moving neutrons released in thermal reactors but the Uranium-235 fuel must be enriched to about 20% or more to maintain the reaction.

      • The Reactor
      • Plutonium breeder reactors use a blanket of fertile Uranium-238 (depleted Uranium) or Thorium-232 around the core of fissile Plutonium-239. Fission of the Plutonium-239 releases more neutrons into the core than conventional thermal reactors and since the reactor does not use a moderator, these are fast, high energy neutrons. The higher concentration of neutrons in the core is sufficient to maintain the chain reaction while at the same time transmuting the non-fissile Uranium-238 or Thorium-232 in the fertile blanket into Plutonium-239.

        In this way the breeder reactor can generate 20% to 40% more fissionable fuel than it consumes.


        Fuelling a fast breeder reactor with Plutonium requires a reprocessing plant which can handle large amounts of spent fuel with high Plutonium concentrations. Very few of these reactors have been built due to their expense and the fire hazards associated with sodium coolant.


      In the breeding of Plutonium fuel in breeder reactors, an important concept is the breeding ratio, the amount of fissile Plutonium-239 produced compared to the amount of fissionable fuel (such as U-235) used to produce it. In the liquid-metal, fast-breeder reactor (LMFBR), the target breeding ratio is 1.4 but the results achieved have been about 1.2 . This is based on 2.4 neutrons produced per U-235 fission, with one neutron used to sustain the reaction.

      The time required for a breeder reactor to produce enough material to fuel a second reactor is called its doubling time, and present design plans target about ten years as a doubling time. A reactor could use the heat of the reaction to produce energy for 10 years, and at the end of that time have enough fuel to fuel another reactor for 10 years.


      Breeder Reactors in Summary

      • Fuel is U 238
      • Fission process is the same as the U 235 reactor
      • Breeder process
        1. U 238 absorbs fast neutrons to become U 239
        2. U 239 sometimes beta decays twice to form Pu 239 , which fissions
        3. U 239 sometimes absorbs another neutron to become U 240
        4. U 240 beta decays twice to form Pu 240 , which fissions
      • Advantages of the breeder over a conventional reactor
        1. U 238 is most abundant isotope, ~99% of all uranium
        2. Fuel needs much less processing
        3. Virtually indefinite supply available
        4. Fuel can be "mined" from oceans
      • Disadvantages of the breeder reactor
        1. Pu 239 can be used in nuclear bomb
        2. Pu is highly toxic and radioactive
        3. Creates nuclear waste as does U 235 fission reactor


Summary of Reactor Types

The table below shows the major fuels, moderators and coolants used in practical nuclear power generating plants.








Pressurised Water Reactor

Enriched Uranium Oxide





Boiling Water Reactor

Enriched Uranium Oxide





Pressurised Heavy Water Reactor

AKA Canadian Deuterium-Uranium Reactor (CANDU)

Natural Uranium Oxide

Heavy Water

Heavy Water



Gas Cooled Reactor

Natural Uranium


Carbon Dioxide



Advanced Gas Cooled Reactor

Enriched Uranium Oxide


Carbon Dioxide



Light Water Cooled Graphite Moderated Reactor

Enriched Uranium Oxide





Liquid Metal Fast Breeder Reactor

Uranium-Plutonium-Zirconium alloy

None (Uses fast neutrons)

Liquid Sodium


Source: International Atomic Energy Agency


  • Efficiency
  • Nuclear reactors operate at surprisingly low temperatures considering the immense energy released by the nuclear reaction. Most operate well below 850°C with some working up to 1000°C and the low temperature range of the thermal working fluid limits the Carnot efficiency of the nuclear power plant.

    The thermal efficiency of UK nuclear power stations averaged 38% in 2005.


  • Nuclear Waste
  • The Uranium ores used to manufacture Uranium fuel are naturally radioactive, emitting a relatively low level of ionising radiation, however as a result of the nuclear reactions involved in nuclear power generation, a wide range of new radioactive waste products are produced.

    Once a fuel element has been used, the remaining fuel material, mostly Uranium, is intimately mixed with highly radioactive fission products which emit energetic beta particles and gamma rays, actinides which emit alpha particles and sometimes neutron emitters as well as parts of the reactor structure which have become radioactive due to bombardment by neutrons. Plutonium-239, the fuel for the H Bomb, a strong alpha emitter with a half-life of 24,000 years, is produced by all nuclear reactors which use Uranium as a fuel whether it is wanted or not, since the bulk of the fuel charge is made up from fertile Uranium-238 which transmutes to Plutonium-239 after collision with a neutron.


  • Nuclear Waste Storage and Reprocessing
  • Disposal of this unwanted radioactive waste is a major problem. Some fission products have half-lives as short as seconds; others have half-lives of tens of thousands of years, requiring long-term underground storage in facilities such as Yucca mountain until the fission products decay into non-radioactive stable isotopes. In 1000 years the level of radiation of the waste will have reduced to a level below that of the original ores from which the fuel was extracted.

    Alternatively in countries such as the United Kingdom, France, and Japan, the spent fuel is reprocessed to remove the fission products so that it can be re-used. Once the useful fuel has been separated, what is left is highly concentrated, high level radioactive materials which still need a home.

    According to The World Nuclear Association - "A typical 1000 MWe light water reactor will generate (directly and indirectly) 200-350 m3 low- and intermediate-level waste per year. It will also discharge about 20 m3 (27 tonnes) of used fuel per year, which corresponds to a 75 m3 disposal volume following encapsulation if it is treated as waste. Where that used fuel is reprocessed, only 3 m3 of vitrified waste (glass) is produced, which is equivalent to a 28 m3 disposal volume following placement in a disposal canister.

    This compares with an average 400,000 tonnes of ash produced from a coal-fired plant of the same power capacity."


  • Safety
  • If a nuclear reaction gets out of control the resulting nuclear accident could release unimaginable amounts of energy which could devastate huge areas of urban and rural countryside and the populations which inhabit them. But nuclear melt downs are not the only threat. The public, and particularly employees in the nuclear industry, are vulnerable to low level radiation leaks from nuclear installations and waste disposal sites and the transportation of radioactive products between sites.

    In view of the potential catastrophic consequences of an accident and the fact that installed safety systems have not prevented three major nuclear accidents, Windscale, Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, in the last 50 years, the responsibility for safety is now taken extremely seriously. The IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) whose mission is "the safe, secure and peaceful uses of nuclear science and technology." now has 150 member states cooperating and exchanging information on nuclear safety and working through INSAG, its International Nuclear Safety Advisory Group.


    • Threats
    • The main risk in a fission reactor is the possibility of nuclear runaway since the energy release depends on a chain reaction.

      • Loss of control can need to power output increase and nuclear runaway
      • The critical mass of fuel remains in place even when the reactor is turned off. A fission reactor is typically loaded with enough fuel for one or several years. Turning off means inserting a neutron absorber into the fuel. Once a problem has occurred and the system gets out of control, no additional fuel is necessary to keep the reaction going.
      • Loss of coolant resulting in, damage to, and melt down of the reactor core.
      •  The fission products in a fission reactor continue to generate heat through beta-decay for several hours or even days after reactor shut-down, meaning that a meltdown is possible even after the reactor has been stopped.
      • Release of radioactive products. This may be leaks of contaminated liquids or gases. Less serious than a meltdown but a serious danger to personnel.
    • Defense in Depth
    • Defined by INSAG as "A hierarchical deployment of different levels of equipment and procedures in order to maintain the effectiveness of physical barriers placed between a radiation source or radioactive materials and workers, members of the public or the environment, in operational states and, for some barriers, in accident conditions".

      It involves multiple, redundant, and independent layers of controls and safety systems to ensure that the failure of any critical system could never cause a core meltdown or a catastrophic failure of reactor containment, as well as systems and controls to protect the employees and the public during normal operation of the plant and the supply chain.


Nuclear Fusion Reactors

Over the last 50 years, the promise of reaping unlimited energy has launched numerous attempts to mimic the thermonuclear action of the Sun and the stars in order to harness the potential energy of nuclear fusion. However, it is difficult to create the environment of the Sun here on Earth and the only successful project so far has been the Hydrogen Bomb. Up to now, none of the attempts to produce sustained, controlled nuclear fusion has been able to produce energy on a commercial scale, although small scale demonstration units have delivered enough power to verify that the principle works and to show that power generation should be feasible.


Fusion Fuels

The most promising fuels for achieving fusion energy release are the two isotopes of Hydrogen, Deuterium and Tritium, which may be fused together to produce a positively charged Helium nucleus, also called an alpha particle, and a surplus neutron in a so called D-T reaction. The energy released by the fusion is shared between the alpha particle which carries 20% of the total energy released and the neutron which carries 80%. Hydrogen nuclides carry the lowest charge of all atoms since they have the fewest protons. They therefore have the lowest Coulomb barrier to fusion and so offer the potential to achieve fusion with the minimum amount of applied energy. The D-T reaction yields 17.6 MeV of energy from the fusion of just two atoms but to give them enough energy to overcome the Coulomb barrier and initiate the fusion requires the energy of each of the Deuterium and Tritium atoms to be raised to between 10 KeV and 20 Kev which corresponds to a temperature of 100 to 200 Million °C which is over six times hotter than the 15 Million °C temperature at the center of the Sun. At these high temperatures all matter is in the plasma state, the fourth state of matter in which the

kinetic energy of the particles strips the electrons from the atomic nuclei leaving positively charged ions producing an ionised plasma.


Deuterium is naturally abundant constituting one in every 6,700 atoms of seawater from which it is easily extracted. Tritium on the other hand is an unstable isotope of hydrogen with a half life of 12 years and is not found naturally but would have to be manufactured. Tritium can however be produced by bombarding Lithium with neutrons which split the Lithium into Helium and Tritium. Lithium is a fairly common metal, also found in seawater as well as many of the world's salt flats. Neutrons are produced in abundance by the fusion reaction itself so that the fusion reaction can provide its own Tritium source. Thus there is sufficient available fusion fuel to supply the world's power needs for millions of years.


Other similar fusion reactions include the following fuel combinations, Deuterium-Deuterium used in the D-D reaction and Deuterium with the isotope Helium-3 in the D-He3 reaction.


The Tokamak Reactor

The principles of the Tokamak reactor are described here but it important to note that this is based on experience with small scale experimental units designed to verify the feasibility of key sub-system designs. There is still much work to do to scale up the system to deliver commercial power generation.


  • Benefits of D-T Fusion and the Tokamak
    • Nuclear fusion has the potential to provide much more energy for a given weight of fuel than any technology currently in use.
    • Secure and inexhaustible supply of low cost fuel.
    • No chemical effluent combustion products
    • Waste is less radioactive and in much lower volume than waste from fission reactors
    • No radiation leaks above normal background levels
    • No possibility of nuclear runaway
    • No afterheat problems associated with loss of coolant as in fission reactors
    • Intrinsically safe system, does not require the elaborate safety systems needed for fission reactors
    • No use of, or production of, weapons grade nuclear materials

  • Disadvantages
    • Major technical challenges still to be overcome
    • Tokamak technology (and alternative fusion technologies) still not ready after over 40 years of parallel development programmes by several nations.
    • Needs huge amounts of energy to initiate and control the fusion process
    • The plasma is prone to instabilities. See more about plasmas.
    • Produces radioactive waste though in much smaller amounts than fission reactions
    • Produces pulsed not continuous power.( Using a heat engine (steam turbine) to generate electricity makes this irrelevant.)
    • Requires immense pulsed power to start the reaction. This could affect the grid supply unless local, isolated, short term energy storage is provided.
    • Economic viability not yet proven

  • Available Power
  • The potential energy available from nuclear fusion is unlimited. In reality delivering this energy is proving to be an elusive goal. The actual energy delivered by fusion from the various experimental reactors rarely approaches the amount of energy used to create the fusion reaction with the very best just breaking even.

    • Conversion Gain
    • The fusion conversion gain or quality factor Q is defined as the ratio of the energy delivered by the fusion process and the energy used to create and sustain the fusion. Sometimes the ratio is defined in terms of power rather than energy.

      Unless Q > 1 (break even) there will be no surplus usable energy.

      Since the surplus energy appears in the form of heat there will be a further conversion loss involved in generating electricity from the heat. This means that only 35% to 45% of this surplus energy can be extracted as electricity reflecting the efficiency of steam turbine generating plants.


  • Tokamak System Principle
  • Deuterium and Tritium atoms are heated and fused together in a high temperature plasma circulating in a vacuum chamber where the fusion reaction produces Helium and a surplus neutron. The plasma is maintained in place by powerful magnetic fields. Large amounts of electric power are needed to heat the plasma and to power the electromagnets. See diagram below.





    Surplus neutrons from the fusion reaction are captured by a Lithium blanket where they react with the Lithium producing more Tritium which is one of the two fusion fuels as well as alpha particles (Helium nuclei). The heat energy released by the fusion should be enough to maintain the fusion reaction and to provide a surplus which can be used to generate electricity. The surplus heat from the fusion and the neutron capture by the Lithium is used to raise steam in a heat exchanger and the steam is used to drive a conventional turbine generator.


  • Engineering Challenges
  • The quest for cheap, renewable energy using nuclear fusion is pushing the limits of technology in several directions simultaneously. Immense technical problems have to be overcome and solutions proposed and progress is painfully slow since it could take several years just to implement and verify a major sub-system change.


    • System Dimensioning and the Lawson Criterion
    • In order to obtain more energy from a fusion reaction than is required for heating the plasma, three plasma conditions must apply simultaneously. The plasma temperature must be high enough to enable the particles to overcome the Coulomb barrier ( the critical ignition temperature), that temperature must be maintained for a sufficient time duration (the confinement time) and the ion density must be high enough. This is usually stated in terms of the "triple product" of ion density and confinement time and temperature, a condition called the Lawson criterion (after British scientist John Lawson). For D-T fusion these conditions are:

      • Plasma Ignition Temperature: (T) 100-200 Million °C
      • Energy Confinement Time: (t) 4-6 seconds
      • Ion Density in plasma centre: (n) 1-2 x 1020 particles m-3 (approx. 1/1000 gram/m-3, i.e. one millionth of the density of air).

      At higher plasma densities the required confinement time could be shorter but the ability to achieve higher plasma densities is limited by the ability to achieve higher magnetic fields.


      Note that the confinement time is measured in seconds. This indicates the order of magnitude of the engineering aspirations. A few seconds of fusion is currently regarded as a great success with the best achievement so far measured in minutes, albeit at a low efficiency.


    • Containment
    • The design of the reactor is dictated by the requirements for containment of the D-T reaction since there are no materials which could possibly withstand the extremely high temperatures necessary for fusion to take place. The solution is to confine the Deuterium and Tritium fuels in a plasma circulating within a toroidal chamber and kept from touching the walls by powerful magnetic fields


    • The Fuel
    • The enormous JET Tokamak fusion reactor is designed to deliver megaWatts of power from a plasma of only a few grams of Deuterium and Tritium circulating within the torus.

      Deuterium exists naturally in large quantities in the Earth's oceans where it amounts to about 0.015%, enough to supply the world's energy needs for millions of years.

      Tritium is a radioactive gas which decays at approximately 5.5 percent per year. It is produced by the fusion plant itself as an essential part of the system by the neutron bombardment of Lithium and by similar processes commercially.


    • The Plasma
    • When a gas is heated to over 1000 °C its kinetic energy strips the electrons from the atomic nuclei leaving positively charged gaseous ions producing an ionised gas plasma. Since the plasma comprises charged particles it becomes conductive and can be controlled by electrical and magnetic fields. The temperature of the D-T plasma in the Tokamak is over 100 Million °C.


      Instabilities of the plasma are a serious nuisance rather than a major disaster.


    • The Plasma Chamber
    • The fusion needs to take place in a vacuum to avoid contamination by other elements. Since the plasma circulates in a toroidal shape, it needs a toroidally shaped vacuum chamber to contain it. Though the amount of fuel is very small, only a few grams, the cross section of the chamber needs to be very large to allow sufficient separation of the extremely hot plasma from the chamber walls . The outer diameter of the chamber ring in the JET Tokamak for example is over 10 metres. The cross section of the toroidal ring through which the plasma flows is "D" shaped with an internal height of over 4 metres. This is a small scale demonstration plant!

      The physical requirements of this huge structure are severe.

      • It must maintain a very high leak free vacuum inside
      • The chamber walls must allow the externally applied magnetic fields to pass through.
      • It must accommodate access for fuel and instrumentation while maintaining the vacuum boundary.
      • It must absorb the thermal radiation coming from the extremely hot plasma allowing for the occasional momentary contact of the plasma with the walls in case of temporary instability.
      • When heated to extremely high temperatures, the chamber walls should not release impurities into the plasma which would contaminate and cool it.
      • More seriously, it must allow the neutron flux resulting from the fusion reaction to pass through chamber walls to the Lithium blanket surrounding the chamber. The neutron flux in a D-T fusion reactor is about 100 times that of fission power reactors and some of these neutrons are unavoidably absorbed by the chamber structure causing it to become radioactive. Once this has occurred, any subsequent activity in the chamber must be done using remote handling equipment.

    • The Magnetic Fields
    • Magnetic confinement is used to contain the high temperature plasma preventing it from touching the chamber walls.

      Since the plasma comprises charged particles, its location can be fixed by two superimposed external magnetic fields interacting with the magnetic field of the plasma current itself as shown in the diagram below.

    • The toroidal chamber carrying the plasma passes through a series of toroidal field coils (shown in green) mounted vertically around the circumference of the chamber. These coils create a toroidal magnetic field along the centre line of the plasma chamber. Electrons and ions in this field will tend to follow helical paths along the magnetic field as they circulate around the inside of the chamber. This field provides the primary mechanism of confinement of the plasma particles.
    • Toroidal Magnetic Field

    • The poloidal coils, also confusingly called vertical coils since they are mounted horizontally parallel to the plane of the toroidal chamber, are located around the perimeter of the chamber. The inner poloidal field coils serve a dual purpose, acting as the multi-turn primary of a transformer whose secondary is the plasma itself which is essentially a single short circuited turn. In this way a large current can be induced in the plasma causing it to flow along the inside of the chamber, winding its way through the torus in a helical path. At the same time the secondary current raises the plasma temperature by Joule (I2R) heating.
    • Poloidal Magnetic Field

    • The interaction of the external poloidal and toroidal magnetic fields and the field due to the plasma current serves to locate the plasma within the cross section of the chamber at the same time squeezing it towards the centre line and away from the walls

    TokamaK Magnetic Fields

    Source ENS European Nuclear Society (Modified)

    Tokamak Magnetic Circuits

    Source - European Fusion Development Agreement (EFDA)

    The diagram opposite provides an alternative view showing the iron core of the transformer poloidal magnetic circuit


    The dependence of the system on the transformer raises other problems since transformers only work with varying currents, whereas DC is required for continuous power generation. This limits the existing Tokamak design to the production of pulsed power. The actual waveform is a sawtooth current ramp.

    Sawtooth Wave

    The main plasma current in the JET reactor (See below) is around 5 Million Amperes.


    Energy consumption in the magnetic field coils is minimised by using superconducting technologies which require very low temperature operation.


    • Plasma Heating
    • In current Tokamak designs the Joule heating supplied by by the poloidal transformer is insufficient to raise the temperature to the necessary 100 Million °C or to maintain it there. Consequently, the heating must be supplemented from other sources.

      • Magnetic Compression
      • The gas laws tell us that the temperature of a fixed volume of gas is directly proportional to its pressure. The same compression heating effect can be achieved in the Tokamak by increasing the magnetic field confining the plasma. At the same time this compression increases the plasma density facilitating the fusion reaction.

      • Radio frequency (RF) Heating
      • RF heating is another technology which is used for plasma heating.

      • Plasma Self Heating
      • Once fusion starts the fusion products contribute to the overall heating.

        The high speed neutrons produced by the fusion carry 80% of the energy released, but having no charge, they escape from the magnetic field. Because they have high penetrating power, most of the neutrons pass through the chamber wall and are eventually captured by the Lithium blanket to which they give up their energy. A neat way of passing the fusion energy through the chamber walls without heating them up. The neutrons which don't make it through the chamber wall react with the materials in the wall causing them to become radioactive.

        The positively charged Helium ions (alpha particles) on the other hand carrying 20% of the fusion energy remain trapped by the magnetic field in the plasma where they give up their energy in collisions with the Deuterium and Tritium ions increasing their temperature in the process.


      If the heat energy is sufficient and there are enough D-T ions to accept it and given enough time for collisions to occur then fusion can occur. This is the basis of the Lawson criterion.


    • The Lithium Blanket
    • The Lithium blanket serves several purposes:

      • It captures the neutrons emitted by the fusion reaction and extracts their energy converting it into heat.
      • It reacts with the neutrons emerging from the plasma to form Tritium, which is fed back into the reactor as fuel.
      • It is an essential part of the heat exchanger in which the heat energy is transferred to a water/steam circuit, raising steam for conventional electricity generation while at the same time cooling the reactor.
      • It contains the radiation from the radioactive structure.


      Alternative designs for of the blanket are still being investigated. Options are pellets of Lithium or pebbles of Lithium alloys which help facilitate the extraction of the Tritium and the purging of the Helium produced in the blanket. This is complicated by the fact that Lithium melts at 180 °C  and boils at 1347 °C. More likely, Lithium will be used in liquid form which simplifies the heat transfer in the heat exchanger.


    • Extracting the power
    • The first stage is to extract energy from the fusion process. Up to now, no fusion reactors, including Tokamaks have produced significant power with a conversion gain better than unity.

      • The Plasma
      • The main difficulty is in producing and maintaining a sufficiently high temperature for fusion to occur. So far this has been, and can only be, possible in short pulses with Tokamak designs dependent on transformer heating. The pulse durations achieved, that is the duration of controlled maintenance of the plasma, have been only a few tens of seconds. The confinement time which is the average time that the ions and electrons remain in the plasma (as specified in the Lawson criterion) is generally much shorter than this. Commercial power plants will need pulse lengths of many hours or days.


      • The Heat Exchanger
      • The heat exchanger is an essential component in the energy conversion chain, designed to take the heat out of the Lithium blanket as explained above. The electricity generating equipment does not see the power pulses coming from the reactor. By converting the energy to heat, the energy pulses are simply smoothed out in the heat exchanger.


      Generating electricity by nuclear fusion or nuclear fission involves three energy conversion stages, each with its own efficiency losses. While direct energy conversion from a nuclear reaction in a single stage may not yet be practical, it seems that the possibility of a two stage energy conversion by combining fusion with MagnetoHydroDynamics (MHD) is still beyond reach. MHD is designed to extract electricity directly from a charged plasma by Faraday induction. The Tokamak already provides the plasma, but it would need to use a different pair of fusion elements which didn't produce a troublesome neutron. It's a pity a way has not been found for using it to generate electricity directly by MHD techniques.


    • Safety
    • Compared with a fission reactor in which a serious nuclear accident could result if the chain reaction gets out of control, a fusion reactor is intrinsically much safer. The processes involved in a fusion reactor are all set to work at optimum conditions of temperature, pressure and magnetic field. Any deviation from these optimum values, for whatever reason, will immediately cause the fusion energy release to fall and the conditions for maintaining fusion, the Lawson criteria, will rapidly be breached causing the fusion to stop. There is thus no possibility of nuclear runaway and the basic high energy fusion reaction is intrinsically safe.

      • The active plasma is kept in a finely balanced equilibrium position by the applied magnetic fields. Any malfunction in the system or external damage would upset the equilibrium and the plasma would collapse into the walls of the chamber, immediately ending the fusion reaction.
      • The self sustaining fusion action occurs in pulses and energy must be applied to initiate each fusion pulse. In the absence of heating energy pulses there could be no fusion.
      • In the case of a serious accident, the only radioactive product which could be released into the atmosphere is the Tritium fuel. The total amount of Tritium circulating or stored in the plant is only about 1 Kg and this would be diluted to legally acceptable safety limits by the time it reached the plant boundary.
      • The amount of fuel circulating within the reactor at any time is only a few grams. Turning off the fuel supply stops the reaction in seconds.
      • The amount of nuclear waste produced by the Tokamak is much lower than with fission reactors and what waste there is has a much shorter half-life


    • Current Experience
    • The largest current experiment for controlled nuclear fusion in the world is the Joint European Torus (JET) at Culham in England.


      The JET Tokamak


      Source - European Fusion Development Agreement (EFDA)


      Work on the JET project began in january 1983 and by 1991, it was possible for the first time in the history of fusion research to release considerable energy by controlled nuclear fusion using the JET. For a period of two seconds, the facility generated a fusion power of 1.8 megawatt. In 1997, JET produced a peak of 16.1 MW of fusion power (65% of input power), with fusion power of over 10 MW sustained for over 0.5 seconds. After a quarter of a century we may know a lot more about fusion and Tokamaks, but we still can not deliver sustained power even on a laboratory scale.


      In June 2005, the construction in France of a much larger Tokamak, the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), was announced by the European Fusion Development Agreement (EFDA). Designed to produce several times more fusion power than the power put into the plasma over many minutes it dwarfs the JET. Described as "an experimental step between today's studies of plasma physics and future electricity-producing fusion power plants" it is expected to cost $5 billion while still not delivering commercial power.

    • The Future
    • While the demonstration units may verify the technical feasibility of generating electricity by nuclear fusion, the economic viability is yet unproven. Proving out all of the necessary subsystems and scaling up the design from the demonstration systems to commercial generating plants is far from complete and industry experts don't expect to achieve the goal of commercial exploitation until 2030 or 2040. Meanwhile engineers and physicists have a new set of expensive toys to play with.

      Nice work if you can get it!


  • Alternative Nuclear Fusion Technologies
  • Alternative fusion technologies for high power electricity generation are even further away from fruition than the Tokamak. Inertial or Laser fusion is an example.

    • Inertial Fusion
    • A small pellet of frozen D-T mixture is illuminated from all sides by radiation from very high power laser beams or ion pulses.This causes the outer layer of the pellet to be heated to more than 100 million degrees Celsius – hotter than the center of the Sun. This in turn causes the inner part of the pellet to be compressed very quickly with huge pressure to a density 100 times that of solid lead. The intense heat coupled with the increase in density of the fuel are expected to be sufficient for fusion to take place.


Tokamak History


Nuclear Batteries

Unstable isotopes can be used as heat sources in a two stage conversion process using the heat generated by nuclear decay to power a thermal battery. These primary batteries are used for special remote applications requiring continuous power over a long, unattended battery life such as space flight applications.


Nuclear Battery


The following table indicates the decay energy available from some unstable isotopes, however only a few of these are suitable for battery applications



    Nuclear Energy Release and Lifetime



    Decay Heat - Q




















    163 days



    136 days





    • Nuclear Fuel Requirements for Battery Applications
    • Energy for nuclear batteries is provided by the decay of suitable unstable isotopes. The following is a list of the requirements.

      • The radiated power per unit weight (power density) of the isotope must be high enough for powering practical applications with batteries of reasonable weight. The system energy supply needs to be dimensioned for the end of life conditions by which time the radiated power will have fallen considerably.
      • The half-life of the isotope must be long enough to provide a continuous energy supply for the duration of the mission (or other application).

        High energy density isotopes usually have a short half life so some compromise may have to be made here.

      • The isotope should produce high energy radiation that is easily absorbed and converted into thermal radiation, but not so high that heavy shielding is needed to protect the users from harmful radiation. This limits the preferred choice of isotopes to alpha and beta emitters and would normally rule out isotopes emitting gamma or neutron radiation.


      Plutonium-238 fits most of these requirements. It has a half life of 87.7 years and a power density of 0.57 Watts/gram emitting mostly alpha particles. Polonium-210 and Curium-242 (which decays to Polonium-210) emit nearly 200 times the energy of Plutonium-238 but have a half lives measured in days. They also emit dangerous gamma rays.


    See Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generators (RTG) for a description of nuclear batteries.


    See also Generators


    See also Nuclear Energy - The Theory


    Nuclear Power History


    Return to Electrical Energy Supply Overview





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