Is nuclear energy green and natural? | The weekly country

In June, the news broke that the European Union was going to consider natural gas and nuclear energy as green energies. It was paradoxical that the second, after being demonized for decades by the green parties, now had the same name: green. The ends meet. There is a name for nuclear energy that is also associated with the ecological culture and that enjoys the backing of science. Nuclear energy, in addition to being green, is natural.

This is the name given to the energy emitted during nuclear fission. The process of nuclear fission by which an atomic nucleus breaks apart and becomes a different element. In this process, part of the mass is converted into energy following Einstein’s famous equation of E=MC2, with the peculiarity that this energy can cause other nuclei to fission. This produces what is known as a chain reaction. In a nuclear power plant, controlled chain reactions take place that take advantage of the energy released to heat water, generate heat and move a turbine that produces electricity. The design of a nuclear power plant is not very different from that of a locomotive in Western movies, where coal was burned to heat water and produce steam.

One of the prejudices against nuclear energy comes from its relationship with weapons. A chemical element can have different isotopes (atoms of the same element that vary in the number of neutrons), so that some are unstable and can fission and others are not. This is the case of uranium. In nature, uranium is made up of 99.2% uranium-238 (U-238), which is stable uranium, and 0.72% uranium-235 (U-235), which is unstable and can fission. The ratio is so low that it cannot start a chain reaction, since if an atom fissions, the energy will be absorbed by stable atoms and the reaction will end there. To make an atomic weapon we need to enrich natural uranium until more than 90% of its composition is U-238. Achieving this is a tremendously expensive and complex process. It is almost impossible for a country to be able to secretly manufacture atomic weapons, due to the enormous amount of resources and raw materials required, despite the fact that some politicians insisted on making us believe otherwise. The enrichment of U-235 for use as fuel in a nuclear power plant is around 3% or 4%, much lower and easier. In Chernobyl or Fukushima there was no nuclear explosion, although some insist on defending the opposite. Physically it is impossible.

At present, the percentage of radioactive isotopes of the elements that exist in nature is very low, so nuclear reactions cannot take place without enrichment processes. But it hasn’t always been that way. Heavy chemical elements, including the major radioactive elements, are formed by supernova explosions. When the Earth was very young, the proportion of radioactive isotopes was much higher. Over time, these atomic nuclei decay and become stable. Millions of years ago, the proportion of uranium-235 on Earth was much higher than the current 0.72%. At that time it could have happened that somewhere on Earth there was enough uranium with a high percentage of U-235 and that a chain reaction had spontaneously formed. What would have been a nuclear reactor, but natural. In 1972, the French physicist Francis Perrin discovered some uranium samples from Oklo, in Gabon, in which the percentage of U-235 was lower than it should have been. That could only be explained because it had been depleted by a chain reaction. Today most scientists agree that in Gabon, 1.8 billion years ago, there were several nuclear reactors that were active for hundreds of thousands of years and released an average power of 100 kilowatts. Green and natural nuclear energy.

the numbers speak

There are people who are afraid of flying by plane due to possible accidents, but they have no problem traveling by car for a short trip. Statistics say that the greatest probability of having an accident is precisely in a car and on a short journey. Something similar happens with nuclear energy. Its detractors affirm that it is very insecure and wield accidents such as those of Fukushima and Chernobyl. With the statistics in hand, the energy source that has caused the most victims is one that is considered renewable: hydroelectric power. Without going any further, in Spain there have been catastrophic accidents due to the failure of dams such as Tous, Monfragüe or Ribadelago.

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