How Does Nuclear Energy Work?
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.
Benefits of Nuclear Energy
Nuclear energy is a secure, dependable source of power for the United States. It is not subject to unpredictable weather or climate conditions, and consumers benefit greatly from the fact that nuclear fuel costs fluctuate less often than other fuel sources.
With more than 50 years of safe and reliable operation in the U.S., nuclear energy is a proven and innovative technology. Georgia Power recognizes the role nuclear power plays in increasing our nation's energy independence, while simultaneously reducing greenhouse-gas emissions.
Currently, more than 440 reactors operate in 31 countries and provide over 11 percent of the world's electricity as continuous, reliable power to meet base-load demand, with no carbon dioxide emissions. Globally 60 more reactors are under construction. Further, 55 countries operate a total of approximately 250 research reactors, and a further 180 nuclear reactors power approximately 140 ships and submarines.
U.S. nuclear energy facilities have demonstrated high levels of reliability with a capacity factor—actual output of power—of approximately 90 percent. Safe, reliable operational records like these increase public and political confidence in the nuclear power industry and provide support for license renewal and the construction of new facilities.
Nuclear Energy Provides:
- Much of the world's baseload power. Baseload plants are operated 24/7 to meet a region's continuous energy demand. They have high reliability and low production costs as compared to other available sources of power.
- Uninterrupted electricity for extended periods of time—for as long as 24 months—which is particularly important for baseload plants.
- Electricity for one in five U.S. homes and businesses, and is a key element in the stability of the U.S. power system.
Nuclear power is proven to be a cost effective resource for power generation, providing energy savings to customers for sixty to eighty years. Nuclear generation units are the only controllable baseload carbon-free generation resources available to customers and are an important and cost effective part of Georgia Power’s diversified generation fleet.
Low and High Level Spent Fuel
Georgia Power safely stores the used fuel from nuclear generation at our plant sites while the U.S. government seeks a location for permanent disposal of spent nuclear fuel. Ratepayers have made substantial financial contributions to the site studies.
Units 1 and 2 at Plant Vogtle use about 1-2% of the average annual flow of the Savannah River at normal operating conditions. Adding two additional units at the site will increase that amount to 2-3% at normal operating conditions.
Georgia Power has developed waste minimization/pollution prevention plans to make the wisest and most environmentally responsible use of resources. Each nuclear energy site places priority on identifying cost-effective opportunities to prevent pollution from all operations at its facilities. This focus on prevention of pollution at the source, combined with the minimal impact of nuclear energy processes to air, water and land, make nuclear energy a key element of Georgia Power's environmental performance.
For more details on nuclear energy and the environment, visit nei.org.
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.
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.
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.
Georgia Power owns two nuclear facilities, Hatch and Vogtle, which provide about 20 percent of the electricity used in Georgia. The plants are managed by Southern Nuclear, a sister company owned by Southern Company, which specializes in nuclear operations. Southern Nuclear also operates Alabama Power's Farley Nuclear Plant.
Plant Hatch is one of Georgia Power's two nuclear facilities. Unlike Plant Vogtle, which was built with the option to expand, there are currently no plans to enlarge the Plant Hatch facilities.
Plant Vogtle, located in Waynesboro, Ga., contains the first new nuclear units in the US in 30 years. The construction of Vogtle 3 and 4 is the largest job-producing project in Georgia.Visit Plant Vogtle
Georgia Power's Learning Power education website offers fun activities, games and puzzles that bring the exciting world of electricity to life for teachers, students and parents.