How Does Nuclear Energy Work

Three Mile Island

As nuclear energy is touted as a more viable option for long-term energy production, you may ask yourself, "How does nuclear energy work?" The answer may surprise you that it is an efficient form of energy.

What is Nuclear Energy

Nuclear energy is considered by many to be a cleaner method than traditional methods for the production of electricity. While traditional electrical plants are powered by steam that's produced by the burning of fossil fuels, nuclear power plants produce steam very differently.

Uranium atoms are split in a process known as fission. The heat generated from this process is converted into steam and used to power the turbines, which produce electricity.

How Does Nuclear Energy Work?

The process in which nuclear energy is produced in the result of a series of steps:

Splitting of Atoms

Uranium atoms, in the form of ceramic-coated pellets, are placed in a reactor core. A chain reaction is produced inside the core, which splits the atoms. Uranium is an unstable element; by splitting it, the metal becomes a different, stable element. Heat and radiation are the byproducts produced by this process.


Control rods are used to absorb the free floating neurons released during the fission process. Boron (trivalent metalloid element) released into the cooling water helps to absorb these as well. This serves to contain the radiation and keep the reactor cool and safe.


The heat and radiation produced by the fission begin to heat the water, or the coolant that surrounds the reactor. This water serves two purposes; it keeps the reactor from becoming overheated, while carrying away the heat and steam, which will power the turbines.

Water and Piping

Water is continuously flowing through and around the reactor and serves as a coolant. Two sets of pipes carry this coolant in and out of the chamber. The primary pipes supply cold, fresh water to the tank, while the secondary pipes carry away the hot water and steam to the turbines. Once the secondary pipes have carried the water out of the pressurized chamber, which prevents the water from boiling, the heated water is able to boil into steam and power the turbines. The two systems of pipes never interact with one another in order to keep the temperature in the chamber perfectly balanced and to control the amount of heat and steam produced by the reactor.

Containing the Nuclear Reaction

Since the fission process produces massive amounts of heat and radiation, the nuclear reaction must be contained at all times. This is done in several ways:

  • Uranium is formed into ceramic pellets to control the radiation.
  • The pellets are packed into zirconium rods which protect and contain the fission process.
  • The reactor core is surrounded by 400-tons of steel that's eight inches thick.
  • The reactor is then stored in a containment of cement and steel three feet thick.
  • The primary piping system forms a seal that prevents the escape of radioactive material.

Environmentally Safe Energy?

In some regards, since nothing is burned or released into the environment during the production of fission, nuclear energy can be considered a more environmentally-friendly energy source than the systems that burn fossil fuels. No greenhouse gasses are produced, so it does not contribute to what many consider to be global warming. In addition, the reactor is not subject to fluctuations due to the weather the way that wind turbines or solar power would be. Nuclear reactors can give off radiation from leaks in improperly contained systems and through transportation of raw materials, such as uranium as well as the storing of radioactive waste products.

The cooling waters that are flushed into the environment may also have a negative effect on the environment, through the distribution of salts and metals, and by the excessive heat given off.

Understanding Nuclear Energy

By taking the time to find out how does nuclear energy work, you can begin to understand the benefits and drawbacks of this important energy source. Educating yourself about nuclear energy is an important step toward becoming informed about the various types of available alternative energy. To become truly well informed, take the time to learn more about energy efficiency and alternative fuel sources as well.

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How Does Nuclear Energy Work