Nuclear powerplants, along with those powered by coal, natural gas and oil, help produce the enormous majority of the energy used by modern industrial civilization. After a long hiatus, nuclear energy is once again being considered as one of the primary energy sources of the future. This is due to a confluence of concern about greenhouse gases and advances which promise reactors that are safer than ever. There are a number of topics which can be used for a science fair project or class report.
Nuclear Reactor Types
There are many different types of nuclear reactors, differentiated by fuel type, size, power output, coolant type and a number of other factors. As a project, familiarize yourself with the basics of how nuclear reactors operate, then do a report, poster or PowerPoint presentation on the differences between reactors of different types. One idea is to devote the central panel of a poster-board or the beginning of a presentation to the way the most basic light-water reactors function, and then devote the rest of the project to going through the "generations" of reactor design. From the first generation (early experimental reactors in the 40s to early 50s) to the second- and third-generation reactors used for power today, and tomorrow's fourth generation of lead- and liquid-sodium-cooled designs; there is enough for a very meaty project. You could even build a small model of a reactor.
The "fuel cycle" is the cycle of nuclear fuel, from ores mined out of the ground to refined uranium used in reactors to spent fuel rods/pellets. There is just as much interest and depth here as there is to be found in the field of reactor design. Your project might focus on one stage of the fuel cycle, perhaps on breeder reactors that recycle spent fuel from light water reactors to produce even more energy. Alternately, you could focus on the whole cycle, from uranium oxide ores to breeder reactors and waste storage facilities.
A major area of concern with nuclear energy is radiation safety. This is the science and engineering field that focuses on keeping people safe from radiation. First, research the different types of radiation produced by nuclear processes (alpha particles, beta particles, and gamma rays) as well as their effects on people. Then research different shielding schemes and ways of protecting industry workers and the public from radiation hazards. Part of your project could be to show a chart of the effects on people from various radiation dosages, and another showing the radiation dosages we absorb in our daily lives from everyday objects (bananas, for instance, emit significantly more than the background level of radiation).
Nuclear Weapons and Proliferation
An ongoing area of concern with regards to the expansion of nuclear power is that of nuclear proliferation. Research and report or present on what types of materials are proliferation threats, and how easy or difficult it might be to steal fissionable materials (those that could be used to make illicit nuclear weapons). Look into the basics of the fascinating field of nuclear weapons design, from the Manhattan Project to today's fusion warheads. As part of the project, you could make cutaway models of a fission device and a fusion device to compare and contrast their method of operation.
- Photo Credit powerplant image by dinostock from Fotolia.com