How Does a Nuclear Reactor Work Essay

1203 WordsDec 25, 20115 Pages
How does a nuclear reactor work? Most nuclear reactors, including those at Japan's Fukushima Daiichi generating station, are essentially high-tech kettles that efficiently boil water to produce electricity. They rely on harnessing nuclear fission—the splitting of an atom into two smaller atoms, which also yields heat and sends neutrons flying. If another atom absorbs one of those neutrons, the atom becomes unstable and undergoes fission itself, releasing more heat and more neutrons. The chain reaction becomes self-sustaining, producing a steady supply of heat to boil water, drive steam turbines and thereby generate electricity. How much electricity does nuclear power provide in Japan and elsewhere? With 54 nuclear reactors generating 280 billion kilowatt-hours annually, Japan is the world's third-largest producer of nuclear power, after the U.S. and France, according to data from the International Atomic Energy Agency. The Fukushima Daiichi station, which has been hit hard by the March 11 earthquake, houses six of those reactors, all of which came online in the 1970s. Worldwide, nuclear energy accounts for about 15 percent of electricity generation; Japan gets nearly 30 percent of its electricity from its nuclear plants. The U.S. produces more nuclear power overall, but nuclear constitutes a smaller share of its energy portfolio. About 20 percent of U.S. electricity comes from nuclear power plants, making it the third-largest source of electricity in the country after coal (45 percent) and natural gas (23 percent). What fuels a nuclear reactor? Most nuclear reactors use uranium fuel that has been "enriched" in uranium 235, an isotope of uranium that fissions readily. (Isotopes are variants of elements with different atomic masses.) Uranium 238 is much more common in nature than uranium 235 but does not fission well, so fuel manufacturers boost the uranium 235

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