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How do Nuclear Generators Work? A Brief Explanation of a Complex System

As global climate change is happening right now, nuclear energy has become one of the most important sources to combat this issue. Nuclear power is an important low-emission source of electricity, currently providing about 10% of global electricity generation. For those countries where it is accepted, it can complement renewables in cutting power sector emissions while also contributing to electricity security as a dispatchable power source.

We may find many applications of engineering within the nuclear power generator – but how exactly does nuclear power generate electricity? This article will provide you with a brief and simplified explanation of the process.

The Development of Nuclear Power

Nuclear engineering was born in the 20th century with the announcement in 1939 of the discovery of nuclear fission by the German chemists Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann. It was almost immediately realized that a weapon of enormous explosive energy might be possible by employing fission, and during World War II the race to be the first to build this weapon led to the creation of the Manhattan Project in the United States. In the 1950s attention turned to the peaceful use of nuclear fission, controlling it for power generation. For more information, check out History of Nuclear Energy.

Nuclear Power Plants

How do Atoms Generate Energy?

Well, first of all – where does this energy come from? Nuclear energy comes from the binding energy that is stored in the center of an atom and holds it together. To release the energy, the atom has to be split into smaller atoms. This process is called fission.

For instance, when hit by a neutron, the nucleus of an atom of uranium-235 splits into two smaller nuclei, for example a barium nucleus and a krypton nucleus and two or three neutrons. These extra neutrons will hit other surrounding uranium-235 atoms, which will also split and generate additional neutrons in a multiplying effect, thus generating a chain reaction in a fraction of a second.

Nuclear fission (Graphic: A. Vargas/IAEA)

Each time the reaction occurs, there is a release of energy in the form of heat and radiation. The heat can be converted into electricity in a nuclear power plant, similarly to how heat from fossil fuels such as coal, gas and oil is used to generate electricity.

The Role of Engineers in Nuclear Energy Production

Every power plant requires electrical engineers for two major reasons.  The first is to optimize the electrical power output by the power plant.  Power engineers are constantly working on increasing the efficiency of the electrical transmission lines, but unfortunately this field in electrical engineering appears to be dwindling.  The efficiency increases as the materials used in the technology become lossless, or ‘ideal’. 

Inner Workings of a Nuclear Power Plant (source: 2013 Ecyclopedia Britannica)

The second major reason, which has shaped electrical and computer engineers in this industry, is electrical engineers implement fail-safe switches and multiple sensors.  These switches shut off the electrical grid, and any circuit connected, to prevent damage from the actual transmission lines if there ever is an overload of current or voltage.  These circuit breakers also prevent power surges from damaging the nuclear reactor’s core. 

Nuclear in the World Today

  • The first commercial nuclear power stations started operation in the 1950s.
  • Nuclear energy now provides about 10% of the world’s electricity from about 440 power reactors.
  • Nuclear is the world’s second largest source of low-carbon power (26% of the total in 2020).
  • Over 50 countries utilize nuclear energy in about 220 research reactors. In addition to research, these reactors are used for the production of medical and industrial isotopes, as well as for training
World electricity production by source 2020 (source: International Energy Agency)

The Future of Nuclear Power?

Nuclear generation by country 2021 (source: IAEA PRIS)
Nuclear electricity production (source: World Nuclear Association, IAEA PRIS)

As you may observe from these graphs and the data, nuclear power is not yet the major source of energy that we use. Today, we still mostly rely on non-renewable sources to produce electricity. It is still debatable whether nuclear energy is a renewable energy source or not – because many risks and dangers are associated with it.

Nuclear reactors and power plants have complex safety and security features. If not designed well, an uncontrolled nuclear reaction in a nuclear reactor could result in widespread contamination of air and water (much like the accident in Chernobyl). Additionally, unlike fossil fuel-fired power plants, nuclear reactors do not produce air pollution or carbon dioxide while operating, but the processes for mining and refining uranium ore and making reactor fuel all require large amounts of energy. The difficulty of producing nuclear energy safely, efficiently, and in mass is still a problem that remains.

Will you become the future engineer that will solve this problem? Check out the job of Nuclear Engineering to find out more about it!

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