Nuclear fission is the disintegration of a susceptible (fissile) atom's nucleus into two different, smaller elements and other particles including neutrons. Approximately 2.7 neutrons are released per fission, which may cause additional fissions if enough fissionable material is present. Nuclear fission is made by separating one atom.
The common types of nuclear fission include thermal fission, which is fission caused by the absorption of a relatively slow thermal neutron with kinetic energy approximately 0.125 eV. Fast fission is fission caused by the absorption of a more energetic neutron, with kinetic energy on the order of MeV. Also, in especially heavy nuclei, spontaneous fission may occur. Nuclei that are fissionable by neutrons typically carry at least a very small chance of spontaneous fission occurring.
Generally, thermal fission is used in commercial reactors, though Fast Breeder Reactors have been developed to harness fast fission.
The United States gets about 19 % of its electricity from nuclear power. Nuclear engineers in this field generally work, directly or indirectly, in the nuclear power industry or for national laboratories. Current research in the industry is directed at producing economical, proliferation-resistant reactor designs with passive safety features. Although government labs research the same areas as industry, they also study a myriad of other issues such as nuclear fuels and nuclear fuel cycles, advanced reactor designs, and nuclear weapon design and maintenance. A principal pipeline for trained personnel for US reactor facilities is the Navy Nuclear Power Program.
B-61 thermonuclear weapon
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“American universities are organized on the principle of the nuclear rather than the extended family. Graduate students are grimly trained to be technicians rather than connoisseurs. The old German style of universal scholarship has gone.”
—Camille Paglia (b. 1947)