Did you know that one tiny pellet of uranium the size of your little finger can produce the same amount of energy as about 1000 kgs of coal? Uranium is extremely energy dense, and this is what makes nuclear energy so useful. In Scotland, we are becoming increasingly reliant on nuclear energy, for example, 40% of our electricity is currently produced from nuclear power, and this percentage may increase as the cost of fossil fuels rises.
At the heart of a nuclear power plant is a process known as nuclear fission: this is where an atom, such as a uranium, absorbs a neutron, and splits into two smaller atoms, releasing a huge quantity of heat in the process.
One of the pioneers of nuclear fusion was Lise Meitner - an Austrian physicist who lived from 1878 to 1968. In the 1930s, she and her collaborators were the first to discover that a uranium atom could be split into two and produce heat at the same time - the key ingredient to producing electricity in a nuclear power station. Many now believe that she was overlooked for the 1944 Noble Prize in Chemistry - this was awarded to her collaborators. However, what is certain is that her discovery of nuclear fission is one of the most important scientific advances of the 20th century.
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Nuclear energy and the production of electricity from heat is studied in detail at Heriot-Watt in our 2nd year course B28TP Thermal Physics & Properties of Matter and our 4th year course B20SN Statistical, Nuclear & Particle Physics. As part of the former, we visit Torness Power station, which is one of two nuclear power stations in Scotland.