How Do Nuclear Power Plants Work?

How Do Nuclear Power Plants Work?

Our ability to mine great amounts of energy from uranium nuclei has led some to bill nuclear power as a plentiful, utopian source of electricity. But rather than dominate the global electricity market, nuclear power has declined from a high of 18% in 1996 to 11% today. What happened to the great promise of this technology?

Nuclear power comes from nuclear fission

Nuclear power plants heat water to produce steam. The steam is used to spin large turbines that generate electricity. Nuclear power plants use heat produced during nuclear fission to heat water.

In nuclear fission, atoms are split apart to form smaller atoms, releasing energy. Fission takes place inside the reactor of a nuclear power plant. At the center of the reactor is the core, which contains uranium fuel.

How Do Nuclear Power Plants Work?

The uranium fuel is formed into ceramic pellets. Each ceramic pellet produces about the same amount of energy as 150 gallons of oil. These energy-rich pellets are stacked end-to-end in 12-foot metal fuel rods. A bundle of fuel rods, some with hundreds of rods, is called a fuel assembly. A reactor core contains many fuel assemblies.

The heat produced during nuclear fission in the reactor core is used to boil water into steam, which turns the blades of a steam turbine. As the turbine blades turn, they drive generators that make electricity. Nuclear plants cool the steam back into water in a separate structure at the power plant called a cooling tower, or they use water from ponds, rivers, or the ocean. The cooled water is then reused to produce steam.

Nuclear reactors in the United States may have large concrete domes covering the reactors, which are required to contain accidental releases of radiation. Not all nuclear power plants have cooling towers. Some nuclear power plants use water from lakes, rivers, or the ocean for cooling.

Nuclear power plants have generated about 20% of U.S. electricity since 1990

As of December 31, 2020, 94 nuclear reactors were operating at 56 nuclear power plants in 28 states. Thirty-two of the plants have two reactors, and three plants have three reactors. Nuclear power plants have supplied about 20% of total annual U.S. electricity since 1990. Learn more about the U.S. nuclear energy industry.

The United States generates more nuclear power than any other country

In 2019, 31 countries had commercial nuclear power plants, and in 14 of the countries, nuclear energy supplied at least 20% of their total annual electricity generation. The United States had the largest nuclear electricity generation capacity and generated more nuclear electricity than any other country. France, with the second-largest nuclear electricity generation capacity and second-highest nuclear electricity generation, had the largest share—about 70%—of total annual electricity generation from nuclear energy.

Top five nuclear electricity generation countries, 2019

CountryNuclear electricity generation capacity (million kilowatts)Nuclear electricity generation (billion kilowatt hours)Nuclear share of country’s total electricity generation
United States98.12809.4119%
France63.13382.4070%
China45.52330.125%
Russia28.37195.5418%
South Korea23.09138.8125%
Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, International Energy Statistics, as of March 24, 2021

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