What is Nuclear Power Plant? How Nuclear Power Plants work?

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The energy demands of the world are continuously increasing. Experts are worried about the future of power generation because there are not enough supplies of coal, water and gas to fulfill the needs of mankind in the long term future. Alternative sources of energy such as nuclear energy are being developed. Nuclear energy has several advantages over other sources of energy because it is not limited by space or location. In this article we will learn about nuclear power plants and some of the basic underlying concepts.

What is a Nuclear Power Plant?

As the name itself suggests, a nuclear power plant is a facility where nuclear energy is harnessed to generated electricity. For those of us who haven’t heard about this term, it may seem like a new concept since we usually hear of atomic and hydrogen bombs which use nuclear energy for large scale destruction. But the same power is used for constructive purposes in nuclear power plants

The basic underlying principle of a nuclear power plant can be understood from the equation of mass-energy equivalence which is stated as follows

E = ∆mc2

Where E is the amount of energy released when a change in mass occurs during a nuclear reaction. This equation may not seem very complicated to you, but as you know “c” represents the speed of light which is of the order of 3 lakh kilometers per second. Just imagine the amount of energy released even if a tiny amount of mass is converted into energy.

This gives an edge to nuclear power plants over conventional sources like coal or gas because it means freedom from geographical factors and parameters. Furthermore since the amount of fuel required is much less as compared to conventional sources of power generation, there is no need to have extensive storage facilities and transportation networks for the same amount of power generated.

Basic Nuclear Reactions

Nuclear reactions fall into two major categories: fission and fusion. Fission refers to the nuclear reaction where a heavy nucleus is broken into nuclei of intermediate atomic number. Fusion refers to the nuclear reaction wherein light nuclei get combined to form a new nucleus.

Energy can be either released or absorbed during the process depending on whether the final mass of the products is greater than or less than the initial mass of the reactants.

The Chain Reaction

The above mentioned types of reactions are not of much use for generating electrical energy on their own.  We require something known as a controlled chain reaction if power is to be generated in a nuclear power plant. When fission is started in a nuclear material it could die out slowly, sustain itself constantly or develop into an uncontrolled reaction. The first and the last options are not useful for generation of electricity. It is only when we have a sustained reaction, that we can utilize nuclear energy in an effective manner

There are lots of other interesting things to be learnt about nuclear power plants regarding their working, layout, processes and so forth which we shall do in later articles in this series.

Read More About Nuclear Power

The rest of the series on Nuclear Power Plants includes How Does a Nuclear Power Plant Work?, Nuclear Power Plant Safety, Types of Power Plants, and the Chernobyl Disaster.  More coming soon!