Nuclear power plant – A company as an atom

Nuclear power plant – A company as an atom

The idea of the atom, telling it is a discrete unit that cannot be further divided, was discussed by philosophers for thousands of years. Theories on how atoms combine into complex objects were developed in India; in ancient Greece Democritus coined the name átomos (uncuttable, indivisible particle of matter) in about 450 BCE (McEvilley, 2002). Later on scientists adopted the name. Now atom is not considered the smallest unit anymore.

When trying to look at the structure and properties of an atom in a similar way as we would look at a big company or corporation, there is a three-dimensional tree diagram showing a dynamic structure of an imaginary institution such as a university, a company, or a corporation. We can see such tree diagrams, often with photographs of chief executive officers and senior business officials, presented on the company website, pamphlets, or in the lobbies of the company buildings, so the visitors can see a hierarchy of the staff, orient themselves, and find a person they intend to call on. Employees in this workplace have various duties and competencies, which are changing depending on their individual input and their cooperation with others. These individuals circulating at their assigned levels are presented as imagined neutrons going on their orbitals in an atom. Energy-loaded input coming from other people (for example, from the talented interns who arrive at the premises) or external factors may energize particular employees allowing for their promotion to a higher level, so now they will circulate on bigger orbitals. For example at the university’s model, there usually is the President, the Provost, Vice Presidents, Board of Trustees, Deans, Directors, Faculty, Staff from IT through Bookstore, and  many functions from Locksmiths to Janitors.

An atom of any element is usually drawn as a set of concentric orbitals having a nucleus in the center of rotation and several elementary particles circulating around the nucleus at various distances. Particles vary in terms of the energy level, wavelengths, and sizes. We think about electrons as the waves and masses at the same time. We can see the employees as collaborators. We can calculate probabilities of finding any electron of an atom in any region on an orbital but not its exact location. Thus we need to examine the wave nature of electrons and the electronic structure of atoms and molecules. The radial wave functions describe the distribution of electrons with respect to the distance to the atom’s nucleus. 

When we talk about electrons in terms of quantum mechanics, we can think about the patterns of electron density rather than the individual electrons as concrete particular bodies. We may discuss the electron properties represented as waves, as they are characterized not only by mass but also charge, spin, and magnetism. Thus, an orbital on which an electron is circulating around an atom’s nucleus is described in textbooks as the actual or potential pattern of electron density formed in an atom. One or more electrons, which can be described by wave equations, may circulate on an orbital.

There are many kinds of elementary particles existing in an atom, which have properties both of waves and particles. In the text on this theme we may encounter descriptions of electrons; neutrons and protons (which in turn may contain three quarks) that are present in an atomic nucleus; photons (the quantum of light or other form of electromagnetic radiation, which carries electromagnetic force, with eight quanta called a gluon; gluons and photons belong to the force-carrying particles), leptons (the electron and the neutrino) paired with quarks and considered the particles associated with matter; and other, detected or hypothetic particles. Much of the quark and the lepton matter coexist with antimatter having an opposite sign (e.g., positrons).

Elementary particles sometimes change one into another. They differ in terms of an energy levels and size. The approximate size of an atom is 10-10 m, the size of a nucleus of an atom is about 10-14 m, a proton is about 10-15 m, and a quark about 10-18 m large. If we accept the size of an electron (~ 2.82 x 10-15 m) as a one unit, a proton will present itself as one thousand units, nucleus as ten thousand units, and an atom as million units. However, quantum physics describes elementary particles in terms of fundamental forces such as gravitation between particles having certain mass; electromagnetic forces between charged particle; strong nuclear force between quarks; and weak nuclear force between neutrinos and electrons (Elementary particles, 2012).

The number of electrons and their configuration around the atom nucleus contribute to determining the structure of the periodic table. Hydrogen wave functions map the electron density. The shells (orbitals) are often visualized as a planetary model for the electrons showing definite quantized energy levels. Particles on higher orbitals, which are further from the nucleus, have higher, less tightly bound energy. The first element, H has one electron only; helium has two electrons that fill the orbit, because it is stable, it is called the noble gas. When an outer orbit is not filled, an atom of this element is not so stable as a noble gas.

A rank system, a hierarchy that characterizes this particular company is presented, and it is taken under consideration how it may support initiatives proposed by the staff members. There are situation where a member of the company staff attains an energy level high enough to become free from the attractive force exerted by the chief (like a positively-charges nucleus in an atom) and go outside, in external space. It happens with the negatively charged electrons when they leave an atom or a molecule; they change it into an ion, namely a cation. When the atomic orbitals interact and overlap with each other, two atoms can share electrons by making a common orbital for two electrons. This makes a stable new molecule. For example, sodium Na, which has 11 electrons on three orbitals, tends to lose one electron to chlorine Cl and form a NaCl molecule. It could be compared to an employee leaving a company and starting a new, independent one.

Nuclear fission

Now, a case when a newcomer joined a company is pictured. The ideas brought in by the individual stir the routine and causes a split of a company into two new units; some members of the former personnel as well as interns) may leave join another the institution. This happens when a radioactive decay or a nuclear reaction cause a nuclear fission. In a naturally occurring, spontaneous radioactive decay the nucleus of an atom splits into two lighter nuclei, releases a very large amount of energy, and often produces free neutrons and photons. In manmade nuclear reaction, a neutron is needed to induce nuclear fission. For example, a nucleus of uranium-235 absorbs a neutron and turns into an unstable, excited nucleus of uranium-236. Excitation energy comes from the kinetic energy and the binding forces in the neutron. Uranium-236 splits into two lighter elements (Kr-92 and Ba-141), releases three free-moving neutrons and radiates electromagnetic gamma rays. This nuclear fission releases a great amount of energy: electromagnetic radiation and kinetic energy of the fragments (which causes the heating of vessels in the power plant nuclear reactor. The amount of energy is millions of times the amount of free energy existing in a similar mass of gasoline.

Nuclear fusion

Nuclear physics, chemistry, and astrophysics describe nuclear fusion as the process where two or more atomic nuclei fuse, that means join together and form a heavier nucleus. This process causes release (in case of small-mass nuclei) or absorption (in case of the nuclei heavier than iron) of a large quantity of energy. Nuclear fusion occurs in all active stars; creating on Earth conditions required for synthetic fusion, continuous reactions, and plasma containment (maintaining plasma in a discrete volume) is very difficult. However, research toward developing controlled thermonuclear fusion is carried out in the laboratory experiments, sometimes resulting in uncontrolled explosions during nuclear weapon testing.


Elementary particles (2012), University of Oregon. Retrieved May 21, 2012, from

McEvilley, T. C. (2002). The shape of ancient thought: comparative studies in Greek and Indian philosophies. Allworth Press. ISBN 1-58115-203-5.

Visualizing Electron Orbitals. (2012) Retrieved May 21, 2012, from