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How Does a Nuclear Power Plant Work?

written by: Ricky • edited by: Lamar Stonecypher • updated: 9/9/2008

Today nuclear power plants have become major source of electricity for us. Externally the nuclear power plant looks like a dome, but it is interesting to know how a nuclear power plant works, what are the types of materials and equipment used, and so on. So just read this article to gain invaluable insight into the interesting world of the industry where power is extracted from the atomic level of matter.

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    Whenever the term nuclear power plant is mentioned, it usually brings images of the Chernobyl disaster into mind, or related images of the nuclear technology triggered device which destroyed 2 cities of Japan during the Second World War. I agree that these incidents were very unfortunate and should have never happened in the first place, but believe me when I say that nuclear power is quite safe. Though nuclear energy has devastating capabilities such incidents or accidents mainly happen due to human errors of carelessness or prejudice. Otherwise nuclear technology is as safe as any other technology used to generate electricity and possibly much more effective in several situations. You will appreciate this viewpoint better once you know how does a nuclear power plant work?

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    The Energy Mass Ratio

    In order to give you an idea about the scale of fuel quantities involved in a nuclear power station vis-à-vis traditional power stations, I ask you to imagine that around a pound of nuclear fuel like say Uranium gives the energy equivalent to burning a million gallons of gasoline. This should not come as a surprise since we have already learned that the energy released in a nuclear reaction is the equivalent of the mass change which takes place during the process. It is therefore huge compared to energy which is released as a result of combustion and related chemical reactions during traditional fuel burning.

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    How Does it All Work?

    It is all very well to hear that tremendous energy lies within atomic particles, which is converted into electrical energy in a nuclear power plant. The million dollar question is- how is it achieved?

    Well the nuclear energy isn’t converted directly into electricity but the heat released during the fission reaction is used to convert water into steam which in turn runs a turbine. The turbine turns the alternator which produces electricity to be fed into the power grid.

    Of course the overall process is not as simple as it seems and there are several types of nuclear power plants which are classified according to different parameters, which will be discussed in separate articles on this topic.

    One concept which must be well understood in context of nuclear power plants is the critical mass of the fuel used. We know that fission occurs whenever an atom splits into two or more components. Let us take the case of U 235 which splits to give 2-3 neutrons in the process which in turn strike other atoms and cause further splitting. This chain can only be sustained if the mass of U 235 is of a certain minimum value known as the critical mass. Below this critical value the reaction would ultimately die out, while if the critical value is exceeded it may result in the likes of an atomic bomb.

    The above statement might have sent jitters down your spine, but just relax. Technology is quite advanced these days and so nuclear power plants simply do not blow up every other day as if they were nuclear bombs . The very few incidents that have occurred to date were mainly caused by carelessness.