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April 22, 2024

Understanding Nuclear Energy: What is it and How Does it Work?

Is Nuclear Energy the Future? Learn this and more in our Nuclear Energy guide.

What is nuclear energy?

Nuclear power is the process of using nuclear reactions to generate electricity. Nuclear energy can be produced through nuclear fission, nuclear decay, and nuclear fusion reactions.

How does nuclear energy work?

Nuclear power stations operate similarly to coal and gas-fired power stations. However, in nuclear power, the energy comes from binding energy that is stored in the centre of an atom and holds it together.

To release the energy, the atom must be split into smaller atoms. During a reaction the smaller atoms don’t need as much binding energy to hold them together, so the extra energy is released as heat and radiation.

In nuclear power stations, the heat caused by fission is used to boil water into steam. The steam is then used to turn a turbine that drives generators to make electricity.

How is nuclear energy generated?

Although the system is more complex, it can be explained in eight simple stages:

The reaction is triggered: Neutrons are fired at the uranium atoms, causing them to split and release more neutrons. These then hit other atoms, causing more splits, and so the chain reaction continues.

Water is heated: Water is passed through the reactor where it is heated to 300C. Pressure is applied to prevent it from boiling or evaporating.

Water circulation: A coolant pump circulates the hot, pressurised water through to a steam generator.

Steam created: The hot, pressurised water passes through thousands of looped pipes to boil it into steam.

Electricity conversion: The steam passes through turbines making them spin and convert into mechanical energy.  The generator then uses an electromagnetic field to convert this mechanical energy into electrical energy.

National Grid: The electrical energy is then transferred to the national grid.

Sent to users: The electricity is then sent through powerlines to homes and businesses for use.

Recycle: Once the steam has done its job in the generator it is passed through cooled pipes and condensed back into water. It is then stored to be reheated and turned into steam again.

Advantages of nuclear energy?

The UK is striving to meet Net Zero goals and reduce CO2 emissions, and the energy sector plays a pivotal role in this.

Alternative energy sources including wind, solar, hydro, and nuclear power produce close to zero CO2 emissions. Nuclear energy has one of the smallest carbon footprints, as the majority of the CO2 is produced during the construction of the power plant, not the running of the facility. Uranium is the fuel used for nuclear energy, and a small sample of uranium can produce the same amount of energy as 800kg of coal.

Disadvantages of nuclear energy?

The main drawback of nuclear energy is the waste produced. Nuclear power plants will produce varying amounts of waste with differing levels of radioactivity.  The levels of radioactivity dictate how the waste is disposed of and managed.

Plans for future nuclear reactors will generate significantly less waste than those used today.

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