How does uranium become a source of energy?

All matter consists of atoms. An atom is made up of a nucleus comprising protons and neutrons, around which electrons orbit. The nuclei of heavy atoms, and the nuclei of uranium, are bombarded in a nuclear reactor with neutrons, causing them to split and release heat. In a nuclear reactor this is done in a controlled fashion, i.e. after each instance of fission, only one new neutron causes a new instance of fission. This means that the surplus of neutrons released in the reactor must be eliminated. Boric acid is added to the water that flows through the reactor vessel and control rods are lowered into the reactor vessel in order to absorb neutrons and thus control the reaction. If all control rods are lowered into the reactor at the same time, the reaction stops within 1.3 seconds. The full fission of 1 kilogram of uranium-235 yields the same quantity of thermal energy as burning 3 million kilograms of coal.

How much uranium is there in the world?

The oceans are home to enormous uranium reserves. But current techniques for extracting uranium from the oceans are not viable. At this time, it is only possible to extract uranium from ore containing a high concentration of uranium. Taking into account known reserves of high-concentration ores in mines and in view of current electricity generation levels in nuclear power stations, our uranium reserves will be exhausted within about 100 years. For that reason, too, it is necessary in the long term to seek out alternatives for current nuclear power stations. In the short term, we can definitely still play an important role in safe and reliable energy supply for Belgium, but in the long run ENGIE Electrabel firmly believes in a future with more renewable energy! 

Which applications use radioactivity?

We are all familiar with the use of nuclear energy for generating electricity, but radioactivity intervenes in many more aspects of our day-to-day lives. A few examples...

  • Silicon is commonly found in the soil. It is 'doped' in a nuclear research reactor and then used in applications such as wind turbines, solar panels and hybrid vehicles.
  • In Belgium, the food industry treats thousands of tonnes of foodstuffs with radiation to kill pathogens.
  • Nuclear technology can help reduce the use of pesticides. In an effort to fight harmful insects, male insects are sterilised with gamma rays and released. Over time, the insect population falls until it no longer poses a threat.
  • Every year, tens of millions of people can thank nuclear medicine for their diagnosis and treatment. Thanks to current medical imaging techniques, abnormalities can today be found that are not found with other types of research.
  • Nuclear medicine is also used for therapeutic purposes, including cancer treatments.
  • With nuclear technology it is possible, among other things, to more efficiently charge underground water reserves.
  • Nuclear technology is used in nearly all large branches of industry for detecting fires or explosives, for example X-rays in airports.
  • Thanks to nuclear technology, space probes have powerful propulsion when they are far away from a star that provides light for solar panels.
  • The energy supply for satellites comes from batteries powered by small radioactive sources. They are very compact and can operate for years without maintenance.