How is electricity generated from nuclear power?
The method used to generate electricity from nuclear power is, in some ways, very similar to other methods of electricity generation – the fuel creates heat, which is used to create steam, which turns turbines that generate electricity. In a nuclear power plant, the fuel that generates heat is generally either uranium or plutonium. These elements are formed into rods that are inserted into water, after which a process called fission is initiated. In fission, the uranium or plutonium is bombarded with neutrons, causing its atoms to split apart, generating heat. Once started, fission is an ongoing process – known as a chain reaction – as each atom that splits generates more neutrons that then split more (uranium or plutonium) atoms. The heat that this chain reaction generates is used to heat the water that the rods are immersed in. What happens next depends on the type of reactor you are using. In a pressurised water reactor, the hot water is used to heat up another water tank, generating steam that powers the turbines (in this method the water in contact with the control rods never boils). In a boiling water reactor, steam generated from the water heated by the rods is used directly to turn the turbines that generate electricity.
Nuclear power is often described as a green energy source, as nuclear fission produces no greenhouse gasses. When looking at the wider lifecycle of nuclear power, though, there are emissions associated with the mining and extraction of uranium and plutonium. Although all energy sources – even green sources – have some emissions and waste associated with them if you look at their wider lifecycle (solar panels eventually degrade and require replacing, for example), the waste associated with nuclear power has caused many countries to hesitate adopting a more visible, dominant nuclear power strategy.
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