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Nuclear Power Plants

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Nuclear Power Plants

This article is about electricity generation from nuclear power. For the general topic of nuclear power, see Nuclear power.

A nuclear power plant is a thermal power station in which the heat source is a nuclear reactor. As is typical in all conventional thermal power stations the heat is used to generate steam which drives a steam turbine connected to a generator which produces electricity. As of 16 January 2013, the IAEA report there are 439 nuclear power reactors in operation[1] operating in 31 countries.[2]

Nuclear power plants are usually considered to be base load stations, since fuel is a small part of the cost of production.[3]


For more history, see nuclear reactor, nuclear power and nuclear fission.

Electricity was generated by a nuclear reactor for the first time ever on September 3, 1948 at the X-10 Graphite Reactor in Oak Ridge, Tennessee in the United States, and was the first nuclear power plant to power a light bulb.[4][5][6] The second, larger experiment occurred on December 20, 1951 at the EBR-I experimental station near Arco, Idaho in the United States. On June 27, 1954, the world's first nuclear power plant to generate electricity for a power grid started operations at Obninsk, USSR.[7] The world's first full scale power station, Calder Hall in England opened on October 17, 1956.[8]


This section has recently been translated from the German World Heritage Encyclopedia.

The conversion to electrical energy takes place indirectly, as in conventional thermal power plants. The heat is produced by fission in a nuclear reactor (a light water reactor). Directly or indirectly, water vapor (steam) is produced. The pressurized steam is then usually fed to a multi-stage steam turbine. Steam turbines in Western nuclear power plants are among the largest steam turbines ever. After the steam turbine has expanded and partially condensed the steam, the remaining vapor is condensed in a condenser. The condenser is a heat exchanger which is connected to a secondary side such as a river or a cooling tower. The water is then pumped back into the nuclear reactor and the cycle begins again. The water-steam cycle corresponds to the Rankine cycle.

Nuclear reactors

Main article: Nuclear reactor

A nuclear reactor is a device to initiate and control a sustained nuclear chain reaction. The most common use of nuclear reactors is for the generation of electric energy and for the propulsion of ships.

The nuclear reactor is the heart of the plant. In its central part, the reactor core's heat is generated by controlled nuclear fission. With this heat, a coolant is heated as it is pumped through the reactor and thereby removes the energy from the reactor. Heat from nuclear fission is used to raise steam, which runs through turbines, which in turn powers either ship's propellers or electrical generators.

Since nuclear fission creates radioactivity, the reactor core is surrounded by a protective shield. This containment absorbs radiation and prevents radioactive material from being released into the environment. In addition, many reactors are equipped with a dome of concrete to protect the reactor against both internal casualties and external impacts.

In nuclear power plants, different types of reactors, nuclear fuels, and cooling circuits and moderators are used.

Steam turbine

Main article: Steam turbine

The purpose of the steam turbine is to convert the heat contained in steam into mechanical energy. The engine house with the steam turbine is usually structurally separated from the main reactor building. It is so aligned to prevent debris from the destruction of a turbine in operation from flying towards the reactor.

In the case of a pressurized water reactor, the steam turbine is separated from the nuclear system. To detect a leak in the steam generator and thus the passage of radioactive water at an early stage is the outlet steam of the steam generator mounted an activity meter. In contrast, boiling water reactors and the steam turbine with radioactive water applied and therefore part of the control area of the nuclear power plant.


Main article: Electric generator

The generator converts kinetic energy supplied by the turbine into electrical energy. Low-pole AC synchronous generators of high rated power are used.

Cooling system

A cooling system removes heat from the reactor core and transports it to another area of the plant, where the thermal energy can be harnessed to produce electricity or to do other useful work. Typically the hot coolant is used as a heat source for a boiler, and the pressurized steam from that boiler powers one or more steam turbine driven electrical generators.[9]

Safety valves

In the event of an emergency, two independent safety valves can be used to prevent pipes from bursting or the reactor from exploding. The valves are designed so that they can derive all of the supplied flow rates with little increase in pressure. In the case of the BWR, the steam is directed into the condensate chamber and condenses there. The chambers on a heat exchanger are connected to the intermediate cooling circuit.

Feedwater pump

The water level in the steam generator and nuclear reactor is controlled using the feedwater system. The feedwater pump has the task of taking the water from the condensate system, increasing the pressure and forcing it into either the Steam Generators (Pressurized Water Reactor) or directly into the reactor vessel (Boiling Water Reactor).

Emergency power supply

The emergency power supplies of a nuclear power plant are built up by several layers of redundancy, such as diesel generators, gas turbine generators and battery buffers. The battery backup provides uninterrupted coupling of the diesel/gas turbine units to the power supply network. If necessary, the emergency power supply allows the safe shut down of the nuclear reactor. Less important auxiliary systems such as, for example, heat tracing of pipelines are not supplied by these back ups. The majority of the required power is used to supply the feed pumps in order to cool the reactor and remove the decay heat after a shut down.

People in a nuclear power plant

In the United States and Canada, workers except for management, professional (such as engineers) and security personnel are likely to be members of either the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) or the Utility Workers Union of America (UWUA), or one of the various trades and labor unions representing Machinist, laborers, boilermakers, millwrights, iron workers etc.


Main article: Economics of new nuclear power plants

The economics of new nuclear power plants is a controversial subject, and multi-billion dollar investments ride on the choice of an energy source. Nuclear power plants typically have high capital costs, but low direct fuel costs, with the costs of fuel extraction, processing, use and spent fuel storage internalized costs. Therefore, comparison with other power generation methods is strongly dependent on assumptions about construction timescales and capital financing for nuclear plants. Cost estimates take into account plant decommissioning and nuclear waste storage or recycling costs in the United States due to the Price Anderson Act. With the prospect that all spent nuclear fuel/"nuclear waste" could potentially be recycled by using future reactors, generation IV reactors, that are being designed to completely close the nuclear fuel cycle.

On the other hand, construction, or capital cost aside, measures to mitigate global warming such as a carbon tax or carbon emissions trading, increasingly favor the economics of nuclear power. Further efficiencies are hoped to be achieved through more advanced reactor designs, Generation III reactors promise to be at least 17% more fuel efficient, and have lower capital costs, while futuristic Generation IV reactors promise 10000-30000% greater fuel efficiency and the elimination of nuclear waste.

In Eastern Europe, a number of long-established projects are struggling to find finance, notably Belene in Bulgaria and the additional reactors at Cernavoda in Romania, and some potential backers have pulled out.[11] Where cheap gas is available and its future supply relatively secure, this also poses a major problem for nuclear projects.[11]

Analysis of the economics of nuclear power must take into account who bears the risks of future uncertainties. To date all operating nuclear power plants were developed by state-owned or regulated utility monopolies[12] where many of the risks associated with construction costs, operating performance, fuel price, and other factors were borne by consumers rather than suppliers. Many countries have now liberalized the electricity market where these risks, and the risk of cheaper competitors emerging before capital costs are recovered, are borne by plant suppliers and operators rather than consumers, which leads to a significantly different evaluation of the economics of new nuclear power plants.[13]

Following the 2011 Fukushima I nuclear accidents, costs are likely to go up for currently operating and new nuclear power plants, due to increased requirements for on-site spent fuel management and elevated design basis threats.[14] However many designs, such as the currently under construction AP1000, use passive nuclear safety cooling systems, unlike those of Fukushima I which required active cooling systems, this largely eliminates the necessity to spend more on redundant back up safety equipment.


There are trades to be made between safety, economic and technical properties of different reactor designs for particular applications. Historically these decisions were often made in private by scientists, regulators and engineers, but this may be considered problematic, and since Chernobyl and Three Mile Island, many involved now consider informed consent and morality to be primary considerations.[15]

Template:Nuclear power plant safety


Main article: Nuclear power debate

The nuclear power debate is about the controversy[16][17][18][19] which has surrounded the deployment and use of nuclear fission reactors to generate electricity from nuclear fuel for civilian purposes. The debate about nuclear power peaked during the 1970s and 1980s, when it "reached an intensity unprecedented in the history of technology controversies", in some countries.[20][21]

Proponents argue that nuclear power is a sustainable energy source which reduces carbon emissions and can increase energy security if its use supplants a dependence on imported fuels.[22] Proponents advance the notion that nuclear power produces virtually no air pollution, in contrast to the chief viable alternative of fossil fuel. Proponents also believe that nuclear power is the only viable course to achieve energy independence for most Western countries. They emphasize that the risks of storing waste are small and can be further reduced by using the latest technology in newer reactors, and the operational safety record in the Western world is excellent when compared to the other major kinds of power plants.[23]

Opponents say that nuclear power poses many threats to people and the environment. These threats include health risks and environmental damage from uranium mining, processing and transport, the risk of nuclear weapons proliferation or sabotage, and the unsolved problem of radioactive nuclear waste.[24][25][26] They also contend that reactors themselves are enormously complex machines where many things can and do go wrong, and there have been many serious nuclear accidents.[27][28] Critics do not believe that these risks can be reduced through new technology.[29] They argue that when all the energy-intensive stages of the nuclear fuel chain are considered, from uranium mining to nuclear decommissioning, nuclear power is not a low-carbon electricity source.[30][31][32]


Main article: Nuclear reprocessing

Nuclear reprocessing technology was developed to chemically separate and recover fissionable plutonium from irradiated nuclear fuel.[33] Reprocessing serves multiple purposes, whose relative importance has changed over time. Originally reprocessing was used solely to extract plutonium for producing nuclear weapons. With the commercialization of nuclear power, the reprocessed plutonium was recycled back into MOX nuclear fuel for thermal reactors.[34] The reprocessed uranium, which constitutes the bulk of the spent fuel material, can in principle also be re-used as fuel, but that is only economic when uranium prices are high or disposal is expensive. Finally, the breeder reactor can employ not only the recycled plutonium and uranium in spent fuel, but all the actinides, closing the nuclear fuel cycle and potentially multiplying the energy extracted from natural uranium by more than 60 times.[35]

Nuclear reprocessing reduces the volume of high-level waste, but by itself does not reduce radioactivity or heat generation and therefore does not eliminate the need for a geological waste repository. Reprocessing has been politically controversial because of the potential to contribute to nuclear proliferation, the potential vulnerability to nuclear terrorism, the political challenges of repository siting (a problem that applies equally to direct disposal of spent fuel), and because of its high cost compared to the once-through fuel cycle.[36] In the United States, the Obama administration stepped back from President Bush's plans for commercial-scale reprocessing and reverted to a program focused on reprocessing-related scientific research.[37]

Accident indemnification

The Vienna Convention on Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage puts in place an international framework for nuclear liability.[38] However states with a majority of the world's nuclear power plants, including the U.S., Russia, China and Japan, are not party to international nuclear liability conventions.

In the U.S., insurance for nuclear or radiological incidents is covered (for facilities licensed through 2025) by the Price-Anderson Nuclear Industries Indemnity Act.

Under the Energy policy of the United Kingdom through its Nuclear Installations Act of 1965, liability is governed for nuclear damage for which a UK nuclear licensee is responsible. The Act requires compensation to be paid for damage up to a limit of £150 million by the liable operator for ten years after the incident. Between ten and thirty years afterwards, the Government meets this obligation. The Government is also liable for additional limited cross-border liability (about £300 million) under international conventions (Paris Convention on Third Party Liability in the Field of Nuclear Energy and Brussels Convention supplementary to the Paris Convention).[39]


Nuclear decommissioning is the dismantling of a nuclear power plant and decontamination of the site to a state no longer requiring protection from radiation for the general public. The main difference from the dismantling of other power plants is the presence of radioactive material that requires special precautions.

Generally speaking, nuclear plants were designed for a life of about 30 years. Newer plants are designed for a 40 to 60-year operating life.

Decommissioning involves many administrative and technical actions. It includes all clean-up of radioactivity and progressive demolition of the plant. Once a facility is decommissioned, there should no longer be any danger of a radioactive accident or to any persons visiting it. After a facility has been completely decommissioned it is released from regulatory control, and the licensee of the plant no longer has responsibility for its nuclear safety.

Historic accidents

Main article: Nuclear power accidents by country

The nuclear industry says that new technology and oversight have made nuclear plants much safer, but 57 small accidents have occurred since the Chernobyl disaster in 1986 until 2008. Two thirds of these mishaps occurred in the US.[42] The French Atomic Energy Agency (CEA) has concluded that technical innovation cannot eliminate the risk of human errors in nuclear plant operation.

According to Benjamin Sovacool, an interdisciplinary team from MIT in 2003 estimated that given the expected growth of nuclear power from 2005 – 2055, at least four serious nuclear accidents would be expected in that period.[42] However the MIT study Benjamin Sovacool references does not state this, instead the authors of the MIT study acknowledge that this estimated accident number does not take into account the existing, as of the time of publishing in 2003, and future, improvements in safety,[43] with the authors basing this assumed high accident rate, cited by Sovacool, only if none of the improvements in safety technology from 1970 to 2003 were implemented.[44] Therefore the figure the MIT team suggest, by their own account, would only be possible if the world nuclear fleet were to continue to operate and build old Generation II reactors and not learn from past mistakes, and that the world fleet would not include any of the presently(as of 2013) built, Generation III or in design phase Generation IV nuclear power plants between 2005 and 2055. The interdisciplinary team from MIT also went on to endorse that it was possible to make nuclear power safe,[44] going on to state that the substantial safety features of then under construction Generation III reactors appear "plausible" at reducing the serious accident rate to near zero with, amongst other features, the use of passive nuclear safety features, which are now part of the state of the art in nuclear reactor safety.[44]

Flexibility of nuclear power plants

It is often claimed that nuclear stations are inflexible in their output, implying that other forms of energy would be required to meet peak demand. While that is true for the vast majority of reactors, this is no longer true of at least some modern designs.[45]

Nuclear plants are routinely used in load following mode on a large scale in France.[46] Unit A at the German Biblis Nuclear Power Plant is designed to in- and decrease its output 15% per minute between 40 and 100% of its nominal power.[47] Boiling water reactors normally have load-following capability, implemented by varying the recirculation water flow.

Future power plants

A number of new designs for nuclear power generation, collectively known as the Generation IV reactors, are the subject of active research and may be used for practical power generation in the future. Many of these new designs specifically attempt to make fission reactors cleaner, safer and/or less of a risk to the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Passively safe plants (such as the ESBWR) are available to be built[48] and other designs that are believed to be nearly fool-proof are being pursued.[49] Fusion reactors, which may be viable in the future, diminish or eliminate many of the risks associated with nuclear fission.[50]

The 1600 MWe European Pressurized Reactor reactor is being built in Olkiluoto, Finland. A joint effort of French AREVA and German Siemens AG, it will be the largest reactor in the world. In December 2006 construction was about 18 months behind schedule so completion was expected 2010-2011.[51][52]

As of March 2007, there are seven nuclear power plants under construction in India, and five in China.[53]

In November 2011 Gulf Power stated that by the end of 2012 it hopes to finish buying off 4000 acres of land north of Pensacola, Florida in order to build a possible nuclear power plant.[54]

Russia has begun building the world’s first floating nuclear power plant. The £100 million vessel, the Lomonosov, is the first of seven plants that Moscow says will bring vital energy resources to remote Russian regions.[55]

By 2025, Southeast Asia nations would have a total of 29 nuclear power plants, Indonesia will have 4 nuclear power plants, Malaysia 4, Thailand 5 and Vietnam 16 from nothing at all in 2011.[56]

Expansion at two Nuclear Power Plants in the United States, Plant Vogtle and V. C. Summer Nuclear Power Plant, located in Georgia and South Carolina, respectively, are scheduled to be completed between 2016 and 2019. The two new Plant Vogtle reactors, and the two new reactors at Virgil C. Summer Nuclear Plant, represent the first nuclear power construction projects in the United States since the Three Mile Island nuclear accident in 1979.

See also

Energy portal


External links

  • IPPNW - International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (Nobel Peace Prize 1985)
  • MAPW - Information on Australia's research reactor
  • Freeview Video 'Nuclear Power Plants - What's the Problem' A Royal Institution Lecture by John Collier by the Vega Science Trust.
  • Non Destructive Testing for Nuclear Power Plants
  • Web-based simple nuclear power plant game
  • Uranium.Info publishing uranium price since 1968.
  • Information about all NPP in the world
  • U.S. plants and operators
  • SCK.CEN Belgian Nuclear Research Centre in Mol.
  • Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage - World Nuclear Association
  • Glossary of Nuclear Terms
  • Swedish Morphological Society
  • Updated edition June 2006
  • An Interactive VR Panorama of the cooling towers at Temelin Nuclear Power Plant, Czech Republic
  • Interactive map with all nuclear power plants US and worldwide (Note: missing many plants)
  • Map with all nuclear power plants US and worldwide (Note: active, not active and under construction)

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