Nuclear energy, produced by the combination of protons and neutrons inside atomic nuclei, is the energy that allows stars to shine so brightly. Two kinds of reactions release this energy: fission and fusion.
Fission occurs when the unstable nucleus of a heavy element, such as uranium, divides into two. Many nuclear power stations use the nuclear energy produced during fission.
The second kind of reaction that releases nuclear energy, called fusion, occurs when two light nuclei join and form a heavier nucleus. This is the reaction that provides energy for the stars.
Scientists are able to use nuclear energy by controlling it. One way this is done is through the fission of radioactive uranium. This process can be regulated with control rods that are inserted between uranium fuel rods to absorb neutrons. Raising and lowering control rods helps maintain the release of energy by determining the number of neutrons produced.
There are three primary kinds of radiation—alpha, beta, and gamma. While radioactivity can be useful for energy, it can also be dangerous. For example, long-term exposure to radiation can cause cancer. Exposure to just a single dose of radiation can even result in sickness or death. Physicist Marie Curie, the first ever two-time winner of the Nobel Prize and discoverer of the radioactive element radium, died of leukemia due to her work with radiation.
Clearly, nuclear energy is capable of doing great things. However, those working directly with it should definitely take precautions!