How Nuclear Power Works Published Jul 27, 2010 Updated Jan 29, 2014
Although not the best I’ve seen this is a pretty good – EZ to understand – overview of Nuclear Power Reactors. For those of you who have always been curious..
Principles of nuclear power
Atoms are constructed like miniature solar systems. At the center of the atom is the nucleus; orbiting around it are electrons.
The nucleus is composed of protons and neutrons, very densely packed together. Hydrogen, the lightest element, has one proton; the heaviest natural element, uranium, has 92 protons.
The nucleus of an atom is held together with great force, the “strongest force in nature.” When bombarded with a neutron, it can be split apart, a process called fission (pictured to the right). Because uranium atoms are so large, the atomic force that binds it together is relatively weak, making uranium good for fission.
In nuclear power plants, neutrons collide with uranium atoms, splitting them. This split releases neutrons from the uranium that in turn collide with other atoms, causing a chain reaction. This chain reaction is controlled with “control rods” that absorb neutrons.
In the core of nuclear reactors, the fission of uranium atoms releases energy that heats water to about 520 degrees Farenheit. This hot water is then used to spin turbines that are connected to generators, producing electricity.
Mining and processing nuclear fuels
Uranium is one of the least plentiful minerals—making up only two parts per million in the earth’s crust—but because of its radioactivity it is a plentiful supply of energy. One pound of uranium has as much energy as three million pounds of coal.
Radioactive elements gradually decay, losing their radioactivity. The time it takes to lose half of its radioactivity is called a “half life.” U-238, the most common form of uranium, has a half life of 4.5 billion years.