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.

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