Civil nuclear power is electric power generated in a nuclear reactor. Nuclear power stations work in the same way as a conventional fossil fuel-burning stations. The main difference is the fuel. Nuclear fuel is typically uranium-based rods, instead of coal or gas.
The reactor uses a “nuclear reaction”, splitting apart the atomic bonds to release energy; neutrons smash into the nucleus of the uranium atoms, which split roughly in half, release energy and neutrons in the process. The neutrons ejected can go on to sustain what what we call a chain reaction by fissioning more atomic nuclei.
On a miniscule level inside the fuel we observe an exothermic (exo = giving out; thermic = of heat) chain reaction, producing significant amounts of heat which can be harnessed.
How it Works
The fuel generates heat, then carbon dioxide gas is pumped through the reactor to take the heat away, and this hot gas then heats water to make steam. The steam is pushed through pipes at a pressure strong enough to drive a heavy turbine round, and it’s axle spins a generator in a magnetic field to create electricity for distribution.
The energy conversion is from atomic, to heat, to mechanical, to electrical. Each step in energy conversion involves some dissipation by way of friction etc. with respect to the end purpose, which means that steam power plants will only ever work with an energy efficiency of, at highest 40% regardless of the fuel used.
Modern nuclear power stations use the same type of turbines and generators as conventional power stations.
- ‘High density’ energy source: produces huge amounts of energy from a small amount of fuel and small amount of land
- Does not create smoke which is hazardous to health
- Does not create carbon dioxide which is thought to exacerbate climate change
- Produces small amounts of waste
- Nuclear Power is reliable compared to other renewables
- Currently supplies about 20% of the country’s electricity load
- Although not much waste is produced, some of the residual radiation from the core is dangerous enough to require specialist handling for years to come.
- Much of the waste must be sealed and contained to prevent contact with humans
- Although reliable, a lot of money has to be spent on meeting strict commissioning, operational & decommissioning safety criteria
Nuclear power is generated using Uranium, a metal mined in various parts of the world. The first civil nuclear fission reactor had to be based on uranium-235, because no other fissile material exists in nature.
As an electricity source, civil nuclear power has been viable only in the last 60 years and currently supplies 11% of the world’s electricity needs.
It must be stressed that the process and technology to produce an atomic bomb is now very different from the production of civil nuclear power. However, the origins of the first nuclear power plant for electricity, was effectively a by-product from the production of man-made plutonium used in nuclear arms, during The Second World War.
“it is important to distinguish the military use of nuclear materials from their peaceful use” (-Wade Allison, Radiation and Reason).
Some military ships and submarines have nuclear power plants for engines.
The People’s Republic of China has initiated a research and development project in the use of thorium fuel instead of uranium, which has potential safety and economic advantages, despite significant design challenges.
Up-to-date information on Nuclear Power in the UK, can be found via the World Nuclear Association.