How Nuclear Power Works

Nuclear fission is a radioactive process by which the nucleus of an atom splits into smaller particles, producing neutrons and photons that release large amounts of heat energy. Nuclear reactors enable controlled, continuous nuclear fission of uranium atoms, and sit within a steel pressure vessel. The heat generated produces steam, driving turbines (as in coal or gas-fired plants) which produce electricity.

The fuel rods are made using enriched uranium. Uranium is a natural silvery-white metallic element found in all rock, soil and water, and forty times more abundant than silver, and mined in countries such as Australia and Canada.

Used fuel from power stations is very hot and radioactive, but can be stored and cooled safely in water for up to 50 years. After about five years, it is typically transported to dry, ventilated concrete containers.

1% of the used fuel is usually recycled immediately, and 96% can be kept for recycling later on. About 3% must be stored separately, in stable rock formations deep underground. The radioactivity of the material gradually diminishes, so that after 40 years, it has one thousandth of its original radioactivity, but nevertheless will remain radioactive for thousands of years.