How Harmful is Nuclear Fission?


Jeff Loats explaining a nuclear reaction at MSU during Youth Journalism Day 2018, credit of Savannah Jackson

The term “nuclear” seems to be a sign of radiation, bombs, demolition, and much more in many people’s eyes. While there have been accidents with nuclear power plants, there have been many more smaller accidents associated with with other power generators, which some alone have caused a higher death to amount of energy produced ratio to nuclear power. But still, for some reason, hearing the word “nuclear” strikes an unnecessary fear in quite a few. Why is this?

Nuclear Physicist, Director of the Center for Faculty Excellence at Metropolitan State University (MSU), and PhD owner Jeff Loats explained this phenomenon. He stated how since nuclear weapons have the power to release so much energy and cause so much destruction, humans have an irrational fear of anything with the word “nuclear” in it. In fact, the well known procedures to look at the human brain, scan for cancer, and do much more, also known as an MRI scan (magnetic resonance imaging), was originally called an NMR scan (nuclear magnetic resonance) because of the use of the nuclei in the procedure. Even though everything but the name is the same between MRI and NMR scans, people still wouldn’t get them done as often when nuclear was in the title. When the name changed, people started getting them done more often than before. Because of humans fear of nuclear everything, a new nuclear power plant (which produces electricity on a large scale and accounts for 20% of the US’ power) hasn’t been produced in decades.

How is nuclear power actually produced? Well, you first have to know how a nuclear reaction happens. Inside of an atom, in the very center, there is something called a nucleus. The nucleus is about as small as a raisin would be in a football stadium (the stadium being the rest of the atom). It’s positively charged and accounts for the majority of the atom’s mass. The nucleus is just barely held together, but it has a lot of kinetic energy held inside. When a neutron hits the nucleus, the nucleus splits in half. This process is called fission. When this happens, a bunch of energy is released and a few extra neutrons leave the nucleus. The process can be repeated, with the neutrons being released from that first nuclear reaction becoming the neutrons that would run into other nuclei (nuclei is plural for nucleus) and cause more nuclear reactions. This is a chain reaction. A comparison made by Jeff Loats is how bundles of dynamite all light up and explode as soon as one explodes, which is why you only have to light one stick for a bundle to explode. This happens fairly quickly though, as does a nuclear reaction, so one can not see it happening one at a time, but rather all at once because of the speed.

While this may sound scary, it’s actually less intimidating than you think. The neutron has to have a special type of element, uranium, and the strongness and power of uranium is just enough to heat water up. Rarely is the uranium charged enough to create a nuclear bomb. Even though there is still so much more to go into about nuclear reactions, I do have to wrap this article up sometime. Nuclear power is actually quite harmless!