What is nuclear power?

We discuss nuclear power and how it works.

Harold Thompson


Harold Thompson


Mar 22, 2024

What is nuclear power?

What is nuclear power? 

Nuclear power is energy produced from nuclear reactions. Nuclear power can be generated in two ways: either by breaking apart atoms (via nuclear fission) or by combining them ( via nuclear fusion). The chain reactions that occur from either process is what releases the energy, which generates electricity in the form of heat.

How does nuclear power work?

The way nuclear power works is actually from nuclear transmutation that alters the atomic composition of the materials used in nuclea power plants. The term "fission" was originally derived from the concept of "binary fission" in biology, denoting cell division, to illustrate the similar process of splitting atoms.

Fission typically involves large, relatively unstable isotopes such as uranium or plutonium. These atoms are bombarded with high-speed particles, usually neutrons. The atoms excite and subsequently divide into two smaller isotopes, known as fission products, and this collision releases high-speed neutrons (and a seriously significant amount of energy).

The additional neutrons instigate other fission reactions, creating a self-sustaining chain reaction. The sheer amount of energy released during these fission reactions is then harnessed up to heat up water that's stored within the nuclear reactor. This hot water gets turned into steam, which then powers the turbines that are connected to the electricity generators, which then generate the electricity. It's sort of like an ultra-powerful, nuclear powered steam engine. No coal required! 

What is a nuclear power plant and how does it work?

Like we wrote above, a nuclear power plant functions similarly to a traditional coal-burning power plant, but with a nuclear reactor replacing the coal furnace. The nuclear power plant is the power facility specially designed to contain and control the nuclear force and heat energy that gets released from nuclear fission, and then channel that steam to power the turbines. Therefore, the main components of a nuclear power plant is the reactor where the nuclear fission occurs, the steam generator that turns water into steam via the heat from the reactor, the turbines that the steam drives, and the generators that produce electricity as the turbines spin.

In fact, one of the benefits of nuclear plants (and SMRs in particular) is that they can be installed on old brownfields to replace retired coal-fire plants. Using the nuclear fission process explained above, fission power plants release an immense amount of heat energy, which then converts water into steam. This steam powers turbines connected to generators, which then produce electricity. Today's nuclear power plants have a theoretical shelf life of 60 years.

How long does it take to build a traditional nuclear power plant?

Building a nuclear power plant is a considerable project. From planning and licensing to actual construction and commissioning, it can take anywhere from 7 to 14 years, depending on regulatory processes, public acceptance, and technical complexities.

While the World Nuclear Association claims it takes over five years to construct a nuclear power plant, the new plants in Georgia took nearly 14 years to complete. Construction only began in 2009, and only just reached completion on the first of the two total reactors by the end of 2023. This extended development cycle is nuclear power's biggest challenge. Luckily, there's some new technologies like small modular reactors that can offer shorter construction timelines (once they're officially approved and finalized).

How many nuclear power plants are in the world?

Around the world, there are 436 nuclear power reactors in operation across 32 countries (as of May 2023) with several more under construction. Collectively, they supply approximately 10% of the world's electricity, but that number rises closer to 20% in advanced economies.

How many nuclear power plants are in the U.S.?

As of 2023, there are approximately 93 operational nuclear power reactors spread across 28 states in the United States, contributing to about 19% of the nation's total electric energy generation.

Where are the nuclear power plants in the U.S.?

Nuclear power plants in the US are spread across 28 states, from Florida to California. Illinois, which boasts 11 reactors across six plants that generated 11,582 MW in the summer of 2021, has the highest number of reactors of any state.  For more on this, check out our article on nuclear power plants across the U.S.

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