Fundamentally, nuclear power plants are giant steam engines that use uranium to heat water and produce steam. The steam turns the blades of turbines connected to a generator. Inside the generator, a magnet rotates in a magnetic field and generates electricity.
Uranium naturally emits neutrons and releases heat. When uranium is used inside a power plant reactor, the process becomes self-sustaining. It is controlled with various neutron-absorbing elements that are formed into movable control rods. The control rods are added to the water, which envelopes the reactor core.
A reaction starts when the control rods are withdrawn from the core; it stops when the rods are reinserted. The reaction can be stopped and the reactor shut down – manually or automatically – in just a few seconds.
Uranium is the most efficient power plant fuel. A single uranium fuel pellet, about the size of a pencil eraser, contains as much energy as:
149 gallons of oil
157 gallons of gasoline
1,780 pounds of coal
17,000 cubic feet of natural gas
Nuclear power is carbon-free and emits no greenhouse gases. It produces 20 percent of America’s electricity and almost 75 percent of all emission-free power generation nationwide.