What Is Nuclear Energy Used For?

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Nuclear energy is used to make nuclear reactors, which serve to generate electricity. Discover how nuclear energy has been used to make bombs with help from a science teacher in this free video on physical science.

Part of the Video Series: Physical & Life Science
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Video Transcript

Hi. I'm Steve Jones. And I'm going to explain what nuclear energy is used for. Now, nuclear energy has been with us since the middle of the 20th century; in fact, since the second World War. And at that time, there was accelerated progress made on looking particularly at bombs, and atomic bombs, hydrogen bombs too. Although, hydrogen bombs didn't appear until afterwards. And at the same time, they looked at atomic reactors. And much of the use today is more peaceful. It is in nuclear reactors where the purpose is to generate electricity. Now, a nuclear reactor is nothing but a big boiler. It produces hot water and steam. Steam at a very high temperature and high pressure drives generators, which produce electricity. The advantage is that you can use conventional forms of power production; of heat production, should I say, to generate the same electricity. So it's fairly flexible. Nuclear reactors; the materials are dangerous, but they're small in quantity. And nuclear reactors, therefore, can be built where it is fairly remote, and they're well away from the centers of population. The use in nuclear weapons is something over which there is a lot of conflict. But basically, there are a dozen nations now that have nuclear weapon stocks. And that is a use, but not a major use now of nuclear energy. There are ships which are nuclear-powered. There were actually nuclear-powered civilian ships, but in fact, they've disappeared. And the only ships now are the large American aircraft carriers, several of them, and lots of nuclear submarines- mainly British, Russian, and American. A last and very important use is in medicine. Now, in diagnosis, we can use radioactive elements; for example, radioactive iodine; to look at the body by giving somebody an injection of this radioactive isotope and then scanning the body to see where it goes. Radioactive iodine; iodine will be sent to the thyroid, and it will give you an outline of the thyroid looking at the radiation that's produced. This is an extremely useful diagnostic tool. And without our nuclear knowledge, we would not have this. In addition, there is treatment using things like radium needles. Radium needles are pieces of metal. Radium is a metal. And at the end of the steel spike, there is a small piece of radium. And that can be inserted into a tumor and will bombard the tumor at very close range with a very high dose of radiation. The advantage of this is it is very specific. The radium needles are places at different angles into the tumor, and they destroy the center of the tumor. This, then, gives the body control over the whole situation and can help it to get rid of that tumor. So those are basically the ways in which nuclear energy is used. Luckily nowadays, much more for peaceful purposes than in the past.

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