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How Nuclear Power Plants Produce Energy

Posted on February 8, 2018

Nuclear power plant

It is quite easy to see a wind turbine and have a basic understanding of how that machine harnesses energy to produce electricity that powers your home. Similarly, solar power and the burning of fossil fuels are concepts we are taught in school, but do you know how nuclear power plants produce energy? Whichever area of energy you work in, having a basic understanding of the other key players is helpful and advantageous for networking and career opportunities. Nuclear power currently generates around a quarter of the UK’s electricity, and this is expected to rise to a third by 2035

Nuclear Fission 

Just like burning coal or gas, nuclear reactions generate heat (energy) which converts water into steam. The steam drives turbines which produce electricity by spinning a coil of wire in a magnetic field. Nuclear fission is the generation of energy through the splitting of atoms. Rods of uranium are immersed in pressurised water tanks and the reactor causes neutrons to strike the uranium atoms, splitting them into smaller atoms. This creates huge amounts of energy, as well as more neutrons which collide with other uranium atoms, creating a chain reaction which continues to break down the uranium. 

To ensure that the plant doesn’t overheat, control rods of a material which absorbs the neutrons are lowered into the reactor. The whole reactor is inside a thick concrete casing to prevent any radiation escaping the reactor into the environment. 

The Future of Nuclear

Just like fossil fuels, uranium is finite. Fission also produces nuclear waste that will remain dangerous for hundreds of thousands of years, and is difficult to store safely. Many of the UK’s nuclear power stations are scheduled to close in the next 15 years, so the race to find alternative nuclear options is on. Around the world, nuclear fusion is the dream energy source. Like fission, it causes no greenhouse gases, but it also generates no nuclear waste and uses hydrogen – which while still finite, is far more readily available than uranium. 

Nuclear Fusion 

Fusion is, simply put, the opposite of fission: while fission splits the atom, fusion fuses atoms. The sun and stars are natural fusion reactors, the pressure and core temperature of a star is so great that nuclei of atoms get fused together, forming one larger nucleus. Fusing light atoms such as hydrogen releases enormous amounts of energy, far more so than splitting the heavy atoms of uranium. 

Scientists have been trying to develop a nuclear fusion reactor that could be used for power stations for decades, but it’s an exceedingly difficult process. The temperature and pressure necessary to make the reaction happen require a lot of electrical power. As yet, a reactor hasn’t been made which can generate more power than is needed to run it. There have been huge advancements in recent years but it’s thought that nuclear fusion power stations won’t be providing us with energy for many years to come. 

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