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Nuclear Fission

This topic explains the process of Nuclear Fission.

Basics

Nuclear fission is a process in nuclear physics in which the nucleus of an atom splits into two or more smaller nuclei as fission products, and usually some by-product particles. Hence, fission is a form of elemental transmutation. The by-products include free neutrons, photons usually in the form gamma rays, and other nuclear fragments such as beta particles and alpha particles.

When a nucleus fission, it splits into several smaller fragments. These fragments, or fission products, are about equal to half the original mass. Two or three neutrons are also emitted.

The sum of the masses of these fragments is less than the original mass. This 'missing' mass (about 0.1 percent of the original mass) has been converted into energy according to Einstein's equation.

Fission can occur when a nucleus of a heavy atom captures a neutron, or it can happen spontaneously.Fission of heavy elements is an exothermic reaction and can release substantial amounts of useful energy both as gamma rays and as kinetic energy of the fragments (heating the bulk material where fission takes place).

Nuclear fission produces energy for nuclear power and to drive explosion of nuclear weapons.

Nuclear Chain Reactions

A chain reaction refers to a process in which neutrons released in fission produce an additional fission in at least one further nucleus. This nucleus in turn produces neutrons, and the process repeats. The process may be controlled (nuclear power) or uncontrolled (nuclear weapons).

Fission chain reactions occur because of interactions between neutrons and fissile isotopes (such as 235U). The chain reaction requires both the release of neutrons from fissile isotopes undergoing nuclear fission and the subsequent absorption of some of these neutrons in fissile isotopes. When an atom undergoes nuclear fission, a few neutrons (the exact number depends on several factors) are ejected from the reaction. These free neutrons will then interact with the surrounding medium, and if more fissile fuel is present, some may be absorbed and cause more fissions. Thus, the cycle repeats to give a reaction that is self-sustaining.

Nuclear power plants operate by precisely controlling the rate at which nuclear reactions occur, and that control is maintained through the use of several redundant layers of safety measures. Moreover, the materials in a nuclear reactor core and the uranium enrichment level make a nuclear explosion impossible, even if all safety measures failed. On the other hand, nuclear weapons are specifically engineered to produce a reaction that is so fast and intense it cannot be controlled after it has started. When properly designed, this uncontrolled reaction can lead to an explosive energy release.

To maintain a sustained controlled nuclear reaction, for every 2 or 3 neutrons released, only one must be allowed to strike another uranium nucleus. If this ratio is less than one then the reaction will die out; if it is greater than one it will grow uncontrolled (an atomic explosion). A neutron absorbing element must be present to control the amount of free neutrons in the reaction space. Most reactors are controlled by means of control rods that are made of a strongly neutron-absorbent material such as boron or cadmium.

In addition to the need to capture neutrons, the neutrons often have too much kinetic energy. These fast neutrons are slowed through the use of a moderator such as heavy water and ordinary water. Some reactors use graphite as a moderator, but this design has several problems. Once the fast neutrons have been slowed, they are more likely to produce further nuclear fission or be absorbed by the control rod.

Why Uranium and Plutonium

Scientists knew that the most common isotope, uranium 238, was not suitable for a nuclear weapon. There is a fairly high probability that an incident neutron would be captured to form uranium 239 instead of causing a fission. However, uranium 235 has a high fission probability.

Of natural uranium, only 0.7% is uranium 235. This meant that a large amount of uranium was needed to obtain the necessary quantities of uranium 235. Also, uranium 235 cannot be separated chemically from uranium 238, since the isotopes are chemically similar.

Alternative methods had to be developed to separate the isotopes. This was another problem for the Manhattan Project scientists to solve before a bomb could be built.

Research had also predicted that plutonium 239 would have a high fission probability. However, plutonium 239 is not a naturally occurring element and would have to be made.

Source : Portal Content Team

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