Feature Reports

Understanding Nuclear Energy

The white clouds that rise above nuclear power plants are made up of water vapor. Only nuclear power plants located next to rivers have cooling towers. © AFP PHOTO / PASCAL PAVANI

Greek philosophers suspected that the atom was the building block of matter. But it was not until the twentieth century that researchers began to understand the close relationships within the atomic nucleus, the mechanisms of radioactivity and the enormous energy potential of breaking nuclei apart. The technological progress of the second half of the century made it possible to transform natural uranium into a usable fuel and to build a tool that can capture this energy: the nuclear reactor.


The term nuclear comes from the Latin word "nucleus", which means core. Nuclear energyEnergy produced in nuclear power plants. The enormous amount of heat released during fission of uranium atom nuclei is transferred to water... is released by the fission of the nucleus of certain heavy atoms. It brings into play far greater forces than those involved in the chemical reactions associated, for example, with the combustion of oil or gas. But because of its powerIn physics, power is the amount of energy supplied by a system per unit time. In simpler terms, power can be viewed as energy output..., this energy must be mastered and controlled by complex techniques.

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Le cycle du combustible nucléaire

A gray, hard and very dense metal, natural uraniumGray, very dense radioactive metal that is relatively abundant in the Earth's crust and oceans in the form of UO2... is widely found in the Earth's crust associated with other chemical compounds, both in granitic and sedimentary soils. But before it can be used in a nuclear reactorLocated in the core of a nuclear power plant, the reactor is a type of huge boiler. It has four main components..., it must undergo several forms of processing. This is the front-end of the fuelFuel is any solid, liquid or gaseous substance or material that can be combined with an oxidant... cycle. After the fuel is used in the reactor, it again goes through a series of steps known as the back-end of the cycle1.

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The decay of unstable atoms releases radiation, a phenomenon called radioactivity. As unstable atoms exist in all matter, we are surrounded by natural radiation. Radiation can also come from man-made sources, through military, medical or industrial applications. Man-made radiation is closely measured and strictly controlled in order to avoid releasing it into the environment and living tissue.

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