How Nuclear Reactor Works

Just as conventional power stations generate electricity by harnessing the thermal energy released from burning fossil fuels, nuclear reactors convert the thermal energy released from nuclear fission.


When a large fissile atomic nucleus such as uranium-235 or plutonium-239 absorbs a neutron, it may undergo nuclear fission. The heavy nucleus splits into two or more lighter nuclei, releasing kinetic energy, gamma radiation and free neutrons; collectively known as fission products. A portion of these neutrons may later be absorbed by other fissile atoms and trigger further fission events, which release more neutrons, and so on. This is known as a nuclear chain reaction.

The reaction can be controlled by using neutron poisons, which absorb excess neutrons, and neutron moderators which reduces the velocity of fast neutrons, thereby turning them into thermal neutrons, which are more likely to be absorbed by other nuclei. Increasing or decreasing the rate of fission has a corresponding effect on the energy output of the reactor.

Commonly used moderators include regular (light) water (75% of the world's reactors) solid graphite (20% of reactors) and heavy water (5% of reactors). Beryllium has also been used in some experimental types, and hydrocarbons have been suggested as another possibility.

Heat generation

The reactor core generates heat in a number of ways:

  • The kinetic energy of fission products is converted to thermal energy when these nuclei collide with nearby atoms.
  • Some of the gamma rays produced during fission are absorbed by the reactor, their energy being converted to heat.
  • Heat produced by the radioactive decay of fission products and materials that have been activated by neutron absorption. This decay heat source will remain for some time even after the reactor is shutdown.
  • A kilogram of uranium-235 (U-235) converted via nuclear processes contains approximately three million times the energy of a kilogram of coal burned conventionally (7.2 × 1013 Joules per kilogram of uranium-235 versus 2.4 × 107 Joules per kilogram of coal).


A nuclear reactor coolant — usually water but sometimes a gas or a liquid metal or molten salt — is circulated past the reactor core to absorb the heat that it generates. The heat is carried away from the reactor and is then used to generate steam. Most reactor systems employ a cooling system that is physically separated from the water that will be boiled to produce pressurized steam for the turbines, like the pressurized water reactor. But in some reactors the water for the steam turbines is boiled directly by the reactor core, for example the boiling water reactor.

Reactivity control

The power output of the reactor is controlled by controlling how many neutrons are able to create more fissions.

Control rods that are made of a nuclear poison are used to absorb neutrons. Absorbing more neutrons in a control rod means that there are fewer neutrons available to cause fission, so pushing the control rod deeper into the reactor will reduce its power output, and extracting the control rod will increase it.

In some reactors, the coolant also acts as a neutron moderator. A moderator increases the power of the reactor by causing the fast neutrons that are released from fission to lose energy and become thermal neutrons. Thermal neutrons are more likely than fast neutrons to cause fission, so more neutron moderation means more power output from the reactors. If the coolant is a moderator, then temperature changes can affect the density of the coolant/moderator and therefore change power output. A higher temperature coolant would be less dense, and therefore a less effective moderator.

In other reactors the coolant acts as a poison by absorbing neutrons in the same way that the control rods do. In these reactors power output can be increased by heating the coolant, which makes it a less dense poison. Nuclear reactors generally have automatic and manual systems to insert large amounts of poison (often boron in the form of boric acid) into the reactor to shut the fission reaction down if unsafe conditions are detected or anticipated.

Electrical power generation

The energy released in the fission process generates heat, some of which can be converted into usable energy. A common method of harnessing this thermal energy is to use it to boil water to produce pressurized steam which will then drive a steam turbine that generates electricity.

Nuclear Life Cycle

A nuclear reactor is only part of the life-cycle for nuclear power. The process starts with mining (see Uranium mining). Uranium mines are underground, open-pit, or in-situ leach mines. In any case, the uranium ore is extracted, usually converted into a stable and compact form such as yellowcake, and then transported to a processing facility. Here, the yellowcake is converted to uranium hexafluoride, which is then enriched using various techniques. At this point, the enriched uranium, containing more than the natural 0.7% U-235, is used to make rods of the proper composition and geometry for the particular reactor that the fuel is destined for. The fuel rods will spend about 3 operational cycles (typically 6 years total now) inside the reactor, generally until about 3% of their uranium has been fissioned, then they will be moved to a spent fuel pool where the short lived isotopes generated by fission can decay away. After about 5 years in a cooling pond, the spent fuel is radioactively and thermally cool enough to handle, and it can be moved to dry storage casks or reprocessed.

Conventional fuel resources

Uranium is a fairly common element in the Earth's crust. Uranium is approximately as common as tin or germanium in Earth's crust, and is about 35 times more common than silver. Uranium is a constituent of most rocks, dirt, and of the oceans. The fact that uranium is so spread out is a problem because mining uranium is only economically feasible where there is a large concentration. Still, the world's present measured resources of uranium, economically recoverable at a price of 130 USD/kg, are enough to last for "at least a century" at current consumption rates. This represents a higher level of assured resources than is normal for most minerals. On the basis of analogies with other metallic minerals, a doubling of price from present levels could be expected to create about a tenfold increase in measured resources, over time. However, the cost of nuclear power lies for the most part in the construction of the power station. Therefore the fuel's contribution to the overall cost of the electricity produced is relatively small, so even a large fuel price escalation will have relatively little effect on final price. For instance, typically a doubling of the uranium market price would increase the fuel cost for a light water reactor by 26% and the electricity cost about 7%, whereas doubling the price of natural gas would typically add 70% to the price of electricity from that source. At high enough prices, eventually extraction from sources such as granite and seawater become economically feasible.

Current light water reactors make relatively inefficient use of nuclear fuel, fissioning only the very rare uranium-235 isotope. Nuclear reprocessing can make this waste reusable and more efficient reactor designs allow better use of the available resources.


As opposed to current light water reactors which use uranium-235 (0.7% of all natural uranium), fast breeder reactors use uranium-238 (99.3% of all natural uranium). It has been estimated that there is up to five billion years’ worth of uranium-238 for use in these power plants.

Breeder technology has been used in several reactors, but the high cost of reprocessing fuel safely requires uranium prices of more than 200 USD/kg before becoming justified economically. As of December 2005, the only breeder reactor producing power is BN-600 in Beloyarsk, Russia. The electricity output of BN-600 is 600 MW — Russia has planned to build another unit, BN-800, at Beloyarsk nuclear power plant. Also, Japan's Monju reactor is planned for restart (having been shut down since 1995), and both China and India intend to build breeder reactors.

Another alternative would be to use uranium-233 bred from thorium as fission fuel in the thorium fuel cycle. Thorium is about 3.5 times as common as uranium in the Earth's crust, and has different geographic characteristics. This would extend the total practical fissionable resource base by 450%. Unlike the breeding of U-238 into plutonium, fast breeder reactors are not necessary — it can be performed satisfactorily in more conventional plants. India has looked into this technology, as it has abundant thorium reserves but little uranium.


Fusion power advocates commonly propose the use of deuterium, or tritium, both isotopes of hydrogen, as fuel and in many current designs also lithium and boron. Assuming a fusion energy output equal to the current global output and that this does not increase in the future, then the known current lithium reserves would last 3000 years, lithium from sea water would last 60 million years, and a more complicated fusion process using only deuterium from sea water would have fuel for 150 billion years. Although this process has yet to be realized, many experts and civilians alike believe fusion to be a promising future energy source due to the short lived radioactivity of the produced waste, its low carbon emissions, and its prospective power output.

Solid waste

The most important waste stream from nuclear power plants is spent nuclear fuel. It is primarily composed of unconverted uranium as well as significant quantities of transuranic actinides (plutonium and curium, mostly). In addition, about 3% of it is fission products from nuclear reactions. The actinides (uranium, plutonium, and curium) are responsible for the bulk of the long-term radioactivity, whereas the fission products are responsible for the bulk of the short-term radioactivity.

High-level radioactive waste

After about 5 percent of a nuclear fuel rod has reacted inside a nuclear reactor that rod is no longer able to be used as fuel (due to the build-up of fission products). Today, scientists are experimenting on how to recycle these rods so as to reduce waste and use the remaining actinides as fuel (large-scale reprocessing is being used in a number of countries).

A typical 1000-MWe nuclear reactor produces approximately 20 cubic meters (about 27 tonnes) of spent nuclear fuel each year (but only 3 cubic meters of vitrified volume if reprocessed). All the spent fuel produced to date by all commercial nuclear power plants in the US would cover a football field to the depth of about one meter.

Spent nuclear fuel is initially very highly radioactive and so must be handled with great care and forethought. However, it becomes significantly less radioactive over the course of thousands of years of time. After 40 years, the radiation flux is 99.9% lower than it was the moment the spent fuel was removed from operation, although the spent fuel is still dangerously radioactive at that time. After 10,000 years of radioactive decay, according to United States Environmental Protection Agency standards the spent nuclear fuel will no longer pose a threat to public health and safety.

When first extracted, spent fuel rods are stored in shielded basins of water (spent fuel pools), usually located on-site. The water provides both cooling for the still-decaying fission products, and shielding from the continuing radioactivity. After a period of time (generally five years for US plants), the now cooler, less radioactive fuel is typically moved to a dry-storage facility or dry cask storage, where the fuel is stored in steel and concrete containers. Most U.S. waste is currently stored at the nuclear site where it is generated, while suitable permanent disposal methods are discussed.

As of 2007, the United States had accumulated more than 50,000 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel from nuclear reactors. Permanent storage underground in U.S. had been proposed at the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository, but that project has now been effectively cancelled - the permanent disposal of the U.S.'s high-level waste is an as-yet unresolved political problem.

The amount of high-level waste can be reduced in several ways, particularly Nuclear reprocessing. Even so, the remaining waste will be substantially radioactive for at least 300 years even if the actinides are removed, and for up to thousands of years if the actinides are left in. Even with separation of all actinides, and using fast breeder reactors to destroy by transmutation some of the longer-lived non-actinides as well, the waste must be segregated from the environment for one to a few hundred years, and therefore this is properly categorized as a long-term problem. Subcritical reactors or fusion reactors could also reduce the time the waste has to be stored.

According to a 2007 story broadcast on 60 Minutes, nuclear power gives France the cleanest air of any industrialized country, and the cheapest electricity in all of Europe. France reprocesses its nuclear waste to reduce its mass and make more energy. However, the article continues, "Today we stock containers of waste because currently scientists don't know how to reduce or eliminate the toxicity. Nuclear waste is an enormously difficult political problem which to date no country has solved. It is, in a sense, the Achilles heel of the nuclear industry. If France is unable to solve this issue, says Mandil, then 'I do not see how we can continue our nuclear program.'" Further, reprocessing itself has its critics, such as the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Low-level radioactive waste

The nuclear industry also produces a huge volume of low-level radioactive waste in the form of contaminated items like clothing, hand tools, water purifier resins, and (upon decommissioning) the materials of which the reactor itself is built. In the United States, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has repeatedly attempted to allow low-level materials to be handled as normal waste: landfilled, recycled into consumer items, et cetera. Most low-level waste releases very low levels of radioactivity and is only considered radioactive waste because of its history.

Comparing radioactive waste to industrial toxic waste

In countries with nuclear power, radioactive wastes comprise less than 1% of total industrial toxic wastes, much of which remains hazardous indefinitely. Overall, nuclear power produces far less waste material by volume than fossil-fuel based power plants. Coal-burning plants are particularly noted for producing large amounts of toxic and mildly radioactive ash due to concentrating naturally occurring metals and mildly radioactive material from the coal. A recent report from Oak Ridge National Laboratory concludes that coal power actually results in more radioactivity being released into the environment than nuclear power operation, and that the population effective dose equivalent from radiation from coal plants is 100 times as much as from ideal operation of nuclear plants. Indeed, coal ash is much less radioactive than nuclear waste, but ash is released directly into the environment, whereas nuclear plants use shielding to protect the environment from the irradiated reactor vessel, fuel rods, and any radioactive waste on site.


Reprocessing can potentially recover up to 95% of the remaining uranium and plutonium in spent nuclear fuel, putting it into new mixed oxide fuel. This produces a reduction in long term radioactivity within the remaining waste, since this is largely short-lived fission products, and reduces its volume by over 90%. Reprocessing of civilian fuel from power reactors is currently done on large scale in Britain, France and (formerly) Russia, soon will be done in China and perhaps India, and is being done on an expanding scale in Japan. The full potential of reprocessing has not been achieved because it requires breeder reactors, which are not yet commercially available. France is generally cited as the most successful reprocessor, but it presently only recycles 28% (by mass) of the yearly fuel use, 7% within France and another 21% in Russia.

Unlike other countries, the US stopped civilian reprocessing from 1976 to 1981 as one part of US non-proliferation policy, since reprocessed material such as plutonium could be used in nuclear weapons: however, reprocessing is now allowed in the U.S. Even so, in the U.S. spent nuclear fuel is currently all treated as waste.

In February, 2006, a new U.S. initiative, the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership was announced. It would be an international effort to reprocess fuel in a manner making nuclear proliferation unfeasible, while making nuclear power available to developing countries.

Depleted uranium

Uranium enrichment produces many tons of depleted uranium (DU) which consists of U-238 with most of the easily fissile U-235 isotope removed. U-238 is a tough metal with several commercial uses—for example, aircraft production, radiation shielding, and armor—as it has a higher density than lead. Depleted uranium is also useful in munitions as DU penetrators (bullets or APFSDS tips) "self sharpen", due to uranium's tendency to fracture along shear bands.

There are concerns that U-238 may lead to health problems in groups exposed to this material excessively, such as tank crews and civilians living in areas where large quantities of DU ammunition have been used in shielding, bombs, missile warheads, and bullets. In January 2003 the World Health Organization released a report finding that contamination from DU munitions were localized to a few tens of meters from the impact sites and contamination of local vegetation and water was 'extremely low'. The report also states that approximately 70% of ingested DU will leave the body after twenty four hours and 90% after a few days.