Atomic energy can be nuclear binding, nuclear potential, nuclear reaction, chemical bonds, or even come from radioactive decay. Nuclear binding is the energy that has to be present in order to break apart the nucleus, or center, of an atom. Nuclear potential energy is the potential energy of the particles in an atom. A nuclear reaction is where the nuclei of the atom interact and creates something different. Nuclear fission is one type of reaction. This happens when a nucleus breaks into smaller nuclei. This produces free neutrons and gamma photons and creates a huge amount of energy. Another example of a nuclear reaction is nuclear fusion. During nuclear fusion at least two atoms nuclei combine to make different atomic nuclei and particles. Again a large amount of energy is released. In radioactive decay, unstable nuclei lose energy by putting off radiation. Anything that is radioactive contains this type of unstable nuclei. Finally, energy is created when atoms combine together in a compound.
Scientists have learned how to control atomic energy and turn it into nuclear power. By harnessing the heat that is given off during a reaction, nuclear power plants are able to boil water, which turns steam turbines. The turbines activate generators and these generators then create electricity. In the United States there are around one hundred nuclear power plants that provide 20% of the United States’ electricity.
One benefit of nuclear power is that is cleaner than fossil fuels. Although it reduces pollution, nuclear power is sometimes seen as controversial because of possibility of accidents and the difficulty of getting rid of the nuclear waste that is produced.