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How Nuclear Plants Work

A nuclear energy facility is not all that different from coal, oil or gas-fueled plants.  The difference between traditional energy methods and nuclear energy is that nuclear plants do not burn anything. At a nuclear energy facility, the heat used to make steam is produced by fission. Turbines, powered by steam, turn to produce electricity. Watch how nuclear energy is created in the video below.

A Boiling Water Nuclear Power Reactor

Pressurized Water Nuclear Power Reactor

Mighty Power From Tiny Atoms

Fission is the splitting of atoms into smaller parts. Some atoms, themselves tiny, split when they are struck by even smaller particles, called neutrons. Each time this happens more neutrons come out of the split atom and strike other atoms, causing a chain reaction. The nuclear energy facility is able to control the chain reaction to keep it from releasing too much energy too fast. Through the chain reaction, fission becomes self-sustaining.

Few natural elements have atoms that will split in a chain reaction. Iron, copper, silver and many other common metals will not split. There are isotopes of iron, copper, etc. that are radioactive. This means that they have an unstable nucleus and they emit radioactivity. However, just being radioactive does not mean that they will fission, or split. But uranium will. So uranium is suitable to fuel a nuclear energy facility.

What Radioactive Means

Radioactivity means giving off radiation. Radiation is a spontaneous emission of energy from the nuclei of atoms. It is naturally occurring, but it is also a byproduct of the fission process. Uranium is radioactive and when it splits, the atoms that are produced are also radioactive. Also, some metals that do not split when struck by a neutron will absorb the neutron and then become unstable or radioactive.

Heat Makes it Work

As atoms split and collide they heat up. The nuclear energy facility uses this heat to create steam. The pressure of the expanding steam turns a turbine, which is connected to a generator.

Getting a Charge Out of it

After the steam is made, a nuclear energy facility operates much like a fossil fuel plant: the turbine spins a generator. The whirling magnetic field of the generator produces electricity. The electricity then goes through wires strung on tall towers you might see along a highway to an electrical substation in your neighborhood where the power is regulated to the proper strength. Then it goes to homes and businesses providing electricity to power lights, heaters, air conditioners, computers and more.

New Nuclear Energy

Plant Vogtle units 3 and 4 are the first new nuclear units in the United States in 30 years. The new units will be the first in the industry to use the Westinghouse AP1000 advanced pressurized water reactor technology. This advanced technology allows nuclear cores to be cooled even in the absence of operator interventions or mechanical assistance. The AP1000 is the safest and most economical nuclear power plant available in the worldwide commercial marketplace, and is the only Generation III+ reactor to receive Design Certification from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC).

In the event of an emergency, new nuclear systems rely more heavily on forces like gravity and natural heat convection and less on pumps, valves, diesel generators and operator actions. New nuclear plants are designed to effectively and safely shut down using the natural forces of gravity, natural circulation and compressed gases to keep the core and containment from overheating.

The AP1000's simplified plant design results in a plant that is easier and less expensive to build, operate and maintain. The plant's design has:

  • 50 percent fewer valves, 35 percent fewer pumps, 80 percent less piping, 45 percent less building volume, and 70 percent less volume than earlier-generation nuclear plants. The modular design also allows for faster construction.

Safety First

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) makes sure nuclear power plants in the United States protect public health and safety, and the environment. The NRC licenses the use of nuclear material and inspects users to make sure they follow the rules for safety.

Nuclear energy facilities have many safety systems to protect workers, the public and the environment. These safety systems include quickly shutting down the reactor and stopping the fission process, systems to cool the reactor down and carry heat away from it, and barriers to contain any radioactivity and prevent it from escaping into the environment. Learn more about Georgia Power's commitment to nuclear energy Safety and Security.

Learn More

To learn more about this fascinating science, please visit the Nuclear Energy Institute and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's websites. Also, take a look at Learning Power, the Southern Company energy education website.

New Nuclear at Plant Vogtle

See how Vogtle Units 3 & 4 are using new nuclear technology and the benefits they will bring to the state of Georgia. Watch Video on MotherNatureNetwork.

Plant Vogtle Job Opportunities

Plant Vogtle is the largest job-producing project in Georgia. At the height of construction, it will employ approximately 5,000 people and, once operational, will offer 800 permanent jobs for Georgians. See Plant Vogtle See Plant Vogtle job opportunities.

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