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The energy produced by a reactor fueled with enriched uranium results from the fission of uranium as well as from the fission of plutonium produced as the reactor operates. As discussed previously, the plutonium forms from the combination of neutrons and the uranium in the fuel. In any nuclear reactor, only about 0.1% of the mass of the fuel is converted into energy. The other 99.9% remains in the fuel rods as fission products and unused fuel. All of the fission products absorb neutrons, and after a period of several months to a few years, depending on the reactor, the fission products must be removed by changing the fuel rods. Otherwise, the concentration of these fission products would increase and absorb more neutrons until the reactor could no longer operate.

Spent fuel rods contain a variety of products, consisting of unstable nuclei ranging in atomic number from 25 to 60, some transuranium elements, including plutonium and americium, and unreacted uranium isotopes. The unstable nuclei and the transuranium isotopes give the spent fuel a dangerously high level of radioactivity. The long-lived isotopes require thousands of years to decay to a safe level. The ultimate fate of the nuclear reactor as a significant source of energy in the United States probably rests on whether or not a politically and scientifically satisfactory technique for processing and storing the components of spent fuel rods can be developed.

Nuclear fusion and fusion reactors

The process of converting very light nuclei into heavier nuclei is also accompanied by the conversion of mass into large amounts of energy, a process called fusion    . The principal source of energy in the sun is a net fusion reaction in which four hydrogen nuclei fuse and produce one helium nucleus and two positrons. This is a net reaction of a more complicated series of events:

4 1 1 H 2 4 He + 2 +1 0 e

A helium nucleus has a mass that is 0.7% less than that of four hydrogen nuclei; this lost mass is converted into energy during the fusion. This reaction produces about 3.6 × 10 11 kJ of energy per mole of 2 4 He produced. This is somewhat larger than the energy produced by the nuclear fission of one mole of U-235 (1.8 × 10 10 kJ), and over 3 million times larger than the energy produced by the (chemical) combustion of one mole of octane (5471 kJ).

It has been determined that the nuclei of the heavy isotopes of hydrogen, a deuteron, 1 2 H and a triton, 1 3 H , undergo fusion at extremely high temperatures (thermonuclear fusion). They form a helium nucleus and a neutron:

1 2 H + 1 3 H 2 4 He + 2 0 1 n

This change proceeds with a mass loss of 0.0188 amu, corresponding to the release of 1.69 × 10 9 kilojoules per mole of 2 4 He formed. The very high temperature is necessary to give the nuclei enough kinetic energy to overcome the very strong repulsive forces resulting from the positive charges on their nuclei so they can collide.

Useful fusion reactions require very high temperatures for their initiation—about 15,000,000 K or more. At these temperatures, all molecules dissociate into atoms, and the atoms ionize, forming plasma. These conditions occur in an extremely large number of locations throughout the universe—stars are powered by fusion. Humans have already figured out how to create temperatures high enough to achieve fusion on a large scale in thermonuclear weapons. A thermonuclear weapon such as a hydrogen bomb contains a nuclear fission bomb that, when exploded, gives off enough energy to produce the extremely high temperatures necessary for fusion to occur.

Questions & Answers

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Draw the Lewis structure of the following : Nitrate anion Nitrogen dioxide
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Explain the Factors which Affect Ionisation Energy
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Screening effect of shell, distances of electron from it nucleus, numbers of electron
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Source:  OpenStax, Chemistry. OpenStax CNX. May 20, 2015 Download for free at http://legacy.cnx.org/content/col11760/1.9
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