Nuclear energy has always been surrounded by a certain amount of mystery and scepticism, and has long been feared by the general population. The word nuclear itself is often misunderstood and associated with acts of mass destruction. Very few grasp the concept of how nuclear energy is generated and even less take the time to read up on it.
A nuclear reactor produces electricity in much the same way fossil fuel power plants do. Some form of energy creates heat, which turns water into steam. The pressure of the steam turns a generator, which produces electricity.
The major difference is in how the heat is created. Power plants that run on fossil fuels burn coal, oil or natural gas to generate that much-needed heat. In a nuclear energy facility, heat is produced from a process called nuclear fission.
Fission is the process of splitting one atom into two and thereby releasing energy. Nuclear fission happens naturally every day. Uranium, for example, constantly undergoes spontaneous fission at a very slow rate, which is why it’s a natural choice for the induced fission that nuclear power plants require.
Inside each uranium fuel pellet, there are millions of uranium nuclei. When these nuclei are split, a huge amount of energy is released. Some of this energy is from radiation, but the biggest source is kinetic energy. This is the energy that produces heat inside a reactor, which in turn is used to heat up water.
The super-heated water is carried to a steam generator, which is made up of many small pipes. The heat in these pipes is used to turn a second, isolated supply of water to steam, which is in turn used to drive the turbine, which ultimately generates electricity. The water from the reactor is pumped back into the reactor vessel and reheated. The steam from the turbine is cooled in a condenser and the resulting water is sent back to the steam generator.