What is a nuclear power plant and how does it work?

Nuclear power represents the third source of electrical energy production in the world behind fuel oil and coal. At the end of 2019, 443 nuclear reactors provided this electricity production. These nuclear power plants are located in 30 countries around the world. In this file, we explain to you what a nuclear power plant is, and how it works.

What is meant by nuclear power plant?

A nuclear power plant is a factory dedicated exclusively to the production of electrical energy. The plant is made up of a boiler which ensures the production of the steam necessary for this production of electricity. Indeed, the boiler contains one or more nuclear reactors having a nuclear fuel as an energy source.

All nuclear power plants do not produce electrical energy on the same scale. This production, which could be described as electrical power, is expressed in megawatts. It mainly depends on the number and type of reactors in operation on the site. Here are some civilian nuclear reactor technologies:

Tihange nuclear power plant in Belgium
Tihange nuclear power plant in Belgium

A nuclear power plant operates somewhat like a conventional thermal power plant. The water is first transformed into steam. Only heating makes this transformation possible. To heat this water, scientists use uranium. Indeed, uranium rods are arranged on either side inside the reactor.

These are bombarded by tiny particles called neutrons. Under the effect of this bombardment, the atoms that make up the uranium break: this is nuclear fission. This breaking of the uranium releases radioactivity and a large amount of heat.

The heat produced is then used to heat the water which circulates in a primary circuit. Which in turn will heat the water that circulates in a secondary circuit. As a reminder, these two circuits mentioned above are closed. Under the effect of the heat, the water in this circuit is then transformed into steam, thus driving the turbines which turn an alternator. Then follows the production of electricity.

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This vapor is immediately cooled by a third circuit. Inside it also circulates water pumped either from the sea or from a river. Incidentally, some of this cooling water is found above the cooling towers in the form of vapours.

In addition, to operate, the nuclear power plant must also pump a large quantity of fresh water. This water mainly cools the reactor core when the plant is shut down. However, it is also used to cool certain systems and premises of the industrial site in question.

You are certainly wondering why provide cooling even though the plant is shut down. The reason is that even when shut down, the nuclear power plant generates heat. Consequently, as you will have understood, the failure of one of these two cooling systems compromises the safety of the plant.

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SAKHRI Mohamed

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