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Nuclear explained Nuclear power plants

Nuclear power comes from nuclear fission

Nuclear power plants heat water to produce steam. The steam is used to spin large turbines that generate electricity. Nuclear power plants use heat produced during nuclear fission to heat water.

In nuclear fission, atoms are split apart to form smaller atoms, releasing energy. Fission takes place inside the reactor of a nuclear power plant. At the center of the reactor is the core, which contains uranium fuel.

The uranium fuel is formed into ceramic pellets. Each ceramic pellet produces about the same amount of energy as 150 gallons of oil. These energy-rich pellets are stacked end-to-end in 12-foot metal fuel rods. A bundle of fuel rods, some with hundreds of rods, is called a fuel assembly. A reactor core contains many fuel assemblies.

The heat produced during nuclear fission in the reactor core is used to boil water into steam, which turns the blades of a steam turbine. As the turbine blades turn, they drive generators that make electricity. Nuclear plants cool the steam back into water in a separate structure at the power plant called a cooling tower, or they use water from ponds, rivers, or the ocean. The cooled water is then reused to produce steam.

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Nuclear reactors in the United States may have large concrete domes covering the reactors, which are required to contain accidental releases of radiation. Not all nuclear power plants have cooling towers. Some nuclear power plants use water from lakes, rivers, or the ocean for cooling.

Photo of a containment dome on a U.S. nuclear power reactor

Containment dome of a nuclear reactor

Source: Stock photography (copyrighted)

Nuclear power plants generate about 20% of U.S. electricity

As of January 1, 2019, 98 nuclear reactors were operating at 60 nuclear power plants in 30 states. Thirty-six of the plants have two or more reactors. Nuclear power has supplied about one-fifth of total annual U.S. electricity since 1990. Learn more about the U.S. nuclear energy industry.

The United States generates more nuclear power than any other country

In 2016, 31 countries had commercial nuclear power plants, and in 15 of the countries, nuclear energy supplied at least 20% of their total annual electricity generation. The United States had the largest nuclear electricity generation capacity and generated more nuclear electricity than any other country. France, with the second-largest nuclear electricity generation capacity and second-highest nuclear electricity generation, had the largest share—about 73%—of total annual electricity generation from nuclear energy.

Top five nuclear electricity generation countries, 2016

Country Nuclear electricity generation capacity (million kilowatts) Nuclear electricity generation (billion kilowatthours) Nuclear share of country's total electricity generation
United States 99.6 805.7 19.7%
France 63.1 386.5 73.0%
China 31.4 197.8 3.4%
Russia 26.1 184.1 17.8%
South Korea 23.1 154.3 29.3%
Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, International Energy Statistics, as of June 17, 2019

Last updated: June 18, 2019