What is Nuclear Power?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Nuclear power is energy which is produced with the use of a controlled nuclear reaction. Many nations use nuclear power plants to generate electricity for both civilian and military use, and some nations also utilize this type of energy to run parts of their naval fleets, especially submarines. Some people favor an expansion of nuclear power plants because this form of energy is considered cleaner than fossil fuels such as coal, although they come with a number of problems which must be addressed, including the safe disposal of radioactive waste products.

The Soviet/Russian Typhoon class submarine is an example of a naval vessel that uses nuclear power.
The Soviet/Russian Typhoon class submarine is an example of a naval vessel that uses nuclear power.

The process of generation nuclear power starts with the mining and processing of uranium and other radioactive elements. These elements are used to feed the reactor of a power plant, generating a reaction known as fission which creates intense heat, turning water in the plant into steam. The steam powers steam turbines, which generate electricity and feed the electricity into the electrical grid.

The energy from a nuclear power plant is produced through controlled nuclear reactions.
The energy from a nuclear power plant is produced through controlled nuclear reactions.

When nuclear energy is used to power something like a submarine, the reactor runs the engines, with the steam directly powering the engines. In both cases, the reactor requires careful supervision, because runaway nuclear reactions must be stopped as quickly as possible to prevent serious problems. Many nuclear power plants have extensive automated systems which help to identify potential trouble spots, and these systems can also re-route power, turn off parts of the plant, and perform other tasks which make the plant safer and cleaner.

One of the advantages of nuclear energy is that it does not produce greenhouse gases. It does, however, produce hazardous waste. Spent nuclear fuel is radioactive and extremely dangerous, requiring a substantial infrastructure to secure the power plant and to handle the fuel. Unfortunately, some nations do not have adequate measures for handling their spent fuel in place, and it is not uncommon to see “temporary” solutions for the storage of nuclear material which last for decades.

The process of mining and refining the necessary radioactive elements used in a nuclear power plant is also not very clean, and these elements require secure transport, which can add to the cost of this type of power significantly. Several nations have instituted a moratorium on the development of nuclear energy until these problems have been addressed.

Nuclear power can create electricity that powers electrical grids.
Nuclear power can create electricity that powers electrical grids.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


Under central North America, vast deposits of oil shale dwarf the currently available supply from pipsqueaks like Saudi Arabia and Iran. And under the Monterey Bay lie immense fields of natural gas and easily recovered oil -- only we can't get at any of it, because of the liberal goon squad running the state. Anyway, nuclear is great, safe and essential as an adjunct to the most important fuel we have, petroleum hydrocarbons. By not making maximal use of what we have, we are committing economic suicide.


All of you who say we should get rid of nuclear and focus on alternative power sources like wind or solar need to remember they are unreliable sources of electricity, as well as being so expensive to run.


If we see today's requirement of electricity in India, it increases day by day. We have coal which is sufficient only for 10 years. It means we should go for nuclear energy, since we know it does not produce greenhouse gasses and nuclear power is a cleaner source of energy than others. One thing also is that 20kg uranium = 2000 tons of coal. It means that operation of nuclear power plants is a boon for us.


Look up "Blueprint for a Sustainable Planet" that uses nature's waste and sunshine to clean the planet and rid ourselves of nuclear forever using daily renewable waste.

This "Blueprint" was among the six finalists for the UN MIT Climate CoLab Competition for global sustainability and lost out to Nuclear/Fission! A Greenpeace expert trying to help with the clean-up of Fukushima says in so many words that planning to have children and nuclear is totally irresponsible!


You know, using hazardous nuclear power is not necessary anymore. We've now got some alternative energy sources such as wind turbines, geothermal and hydro electrical. But it's true that these have to be further developed.


What about south africa? We do not have the proper infrastructure or finances to build and maintain nuclear power plants. And if something should go wrong? Everywhere in south africa is so close to each other that a really big problem could occur if there is a mistake made. Our roads are not well built, with many pot holes, which may be hazardous to trucks transporting uranium and other radioactive elements to the power plant. And where will we store the waste?


I think that Nuclear power is realistic solution to our energy needs and although it may have bad effects like radiation, it is a key way forward in the ways of energy and fuel. Don't abolish it or we'll have very few options left for ways of finding energy.


lots of people working on a couple of big plants in each country, with an easy way of getting rid of the radioactive waste could work well. Get way more wind turbines, maybe have a few thousand or million in the desert or something so people can't complain and they still get their electricity.


Switch it once you have it, we have no alternative and we should eat what is in our plates. i suggest that nuclear power remains a prominent source of energy for our economic growth and prosperity, however serious attention must be executed if this source becomes a threat to human nature.


i don't think we really need nuclear anymore. we have other solutions like wind turbines.


i believe this is not the only way out the question. does the uk need new nuclear power stations? thank you


Nuclear power is a lazy answer to the energy crisis.


Nuclear is one of very few realistic options we have. Especially in the uk! Takes many years to build them so let's start now!


actually I believe if there is a small enough number of power plant to be controlled, it is possible this could be our future major supply

of electricity.


I think nuclear power should be obliterated.


Actually, there is 600 times more uranium in the ground than gold and there is as much uranium as tin. There hasn't been any major new uranium exploration for 20 years, but at current levels, known uranium reserves are predicted to last for 85 years. Estimates from the IAEA and the OECD show that at least six times more uranium is extractable – enough for 500 years’ supply at current demand. Modern reactors can use thorium as a fuel and convert it into uranium – and there is three times more thorium in the ground than uranium. So yea, but I don't think that we should keep on making more reactors until we can find a safe way of disposing of the waste.


I'd like to see you all live without nuclear power. Yes, wind turbines are an AMAZING technology, but they cost billions of dollars and there are few people/companies (besides T. Boone Pickens! :-) who are willing to foot the bill. Yes, there are problems with nuclear power, most significantly the disposal of nuclear waste. But there are scientists working very hard to create clean ways to dispose this material. Most of our power comes from nuclear power - if you think you can live without it, or that we, as humans, have "gone down in dignity," you should first get off your computer (it's electric, after all) and go live on a boat somewhere with alternative technology to fuel your electricity, heat, water, etc. I'm sick of people being hypocrites - saying nuclear power is the most horrible thing we, as humans, could have invented, and yet milking the power grids with their own needs.


Nuclear power should be abolished and demolished it is an absolute disgrace and shows how humans the species have gone down in dignity!


The biggest problem with nuclear energy is that there is only enough high grade uranium left in the world to run fission reactors for another seven years before you have to build fast breeders. This produces plutonium, which can be also used as a fuel - but also to make dirty bombs! Do we need to have this proliferate?

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