Nuclear power plants provide about 17 percent of the world’s electricity. Some countries depend more on nuclear power for electricity than others. In France, for instance, about 75 percent of the electricity is generated from nuclear power, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency. In the United States, nuclear power supplies about 15 percent of the electricity overall, but some states get more power from nuclear plants than others. There are more than 400 nuclear power plants around the world, with more than 100 in the United States.
The dome-shaped containment building at the Shearon Harris Nuclear Power Plant near Raleigh, NC. See more nuclear power pictures.
Have you ever wondered how a nuclear power plant works or how safe nuclear power is? In this article, we will examine how a nuclear reactor and a power plant work. We’ll explain nuclear fission and give you a view inside a nuclear reactor.
Uranium is a fairly common element on Earth, incorporated into the planet during the planet’s formation. Uranium is originally formed in stars. Old stars exploded, and the dust from these shattered stars aggregated together to form our planet. Uranium-238 (U-238) has an extremely long half-life (4.5 billion years), and therefore is still present in fairly large quantities. U-238 makes up 99 percent of the uranium on the planet. U-235 makes up about 0.7 percent of the remaining uranium found naturally, while U-234 is even more rare and is formed by the decay of U-238. (Uranium-238 goes through many stages or alpha and beta decay to form a stable isotope of lead, and U-234 is one link in that chain.)
Uranium-235 has an interesting property that makes it useful for both nuclear power production and for nuclear bomb production. U-235 decays naturally, just as U-238 does, by alpha radiation. U-235 also undergoes spontaneous fission a small percentage of the time. However, U-235 is one of the few materials that can undergo induced fission. If a free neutron runs into a U-235 nucleus, the nucleus will absorb the neutron without hesitation, become unstable and split immediately. See How Nuclear Radiation Works for complete details.