Nuclear power plant

Nuclear power plants are a type of power plant that use the process of nuclear fission in order to generate electricity. They do this by using nuclear reactors in combination with the Rankine cycle, where the heat generated by the reactor converts water into steam, which spins a turbine and a generator. Nuclear power provides the world with around 11% of its total electricity, with the largest producers being the United States and France.[1]

Figure 1. The Darlington nuclear power plant in Ontario produces power from four 878 MW CANDU reactors.[2]

Aside from the source of heat, nuclear power plants run very similar to coal-fired power plants. They require different safety measures however, since the use of nuclear fuel has vastly different properties from coal or other fossil fuels. They get their thermal power from splitting the nuclei of atoms in their reactor core, with uranium being the dominant choice of fuel in the world today. Thorium also has potential use in nuclear power production, however it is not currently in use. Below is the basic operation of a boiling water power plant, which shows the many components of a power plant, along with the generation of electricity.

Figure 2. A boiling water nuclear reactor in combination with the Rankine cycle forms the basis of a nuclear power plant.[3]

Components and Operation

Nuclear Reactor

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The reactor is a key component of a power plant, as it contains the fuel and its nuclear chain reaction, along with all of the nuclear waste products. The reactor is the heat source for the power plant, just like the boiler is for a coal plant. Uranium is the dominant nuclear fuel used in nuclear reactors, and its fission reactions are what produce the heat within a reactor. This heat is then transferred to the reactor's coolant, which provides heat to other parts of the nuclear power plant.

Besides their use in power generation, there are other types of nuclear reactors that are used for propulsion of ships, aircraft and satellites, plutonium manufacturing, along with research and medical purposes.[4] The power plant encompasses not just the reactor, but also cooling towers, turbines, generators, and various safety systems. The reactor is, however, the biggest difference from other external heat engines.

Steam Generation

The production of steam is common among all nuclear power plants, but the way this is done varies immensely.

Figure 3. Steam turbine in a power plant.[5]

The most common power plants in the world use pressurized water reactors, which use two loops of circling water to produce steam.[6] The first loop carries extremely hot liquid water to a heat exchanger, where water at a lower pressure is circulated. It then heats up and boils to steam, and can then be sent to the turbine section.

Boiling water reactors, the second most common reactor in power generation, heat the water in the core directly to steam, as seen in Figure 2.[6]

Turbine and Generator

Figure 4. Two cooling towers of a nuclear power plant.[7]

Once steam has been produced, it travels at high pressures and speeds through one or more turbines. These get up to extremely high speeds, and the steam loses energy therefore condensing back to a cooler liquid water. The rotation of the turbines is used to spin an electric generator, which produces electricity that is sent out the the electrical grid.[8]

Cooling Towers

Perhaps the most iconic symbol of a nuclear power plant is the cooling towers, seen in Figure 4. They work to reject waste heat to the atmosphere by the transfer of heat from hot water (from the turbine section) to the cooler outside air.[4] Hot water cools in contact with the air and a small portion, around 2%, evaporates and raises up through the top. Click here to see how a cooling tower works.

Many nuclear power plants simply put the waste heat into a river, lake or ocean instead of having cooling towers. Many other power plants like coal-fired power plants have cooling towers or these large bodies of water as well. The thermodynamics of getting electricity from the heat is identical.


The efficiency of a nuclear power plant is determined similarly to other heat engines, since technically the plant is a large heat engine. The amount of electric power produced for each unit of thermal power gives the plant its thermal efficiency, and due to the second law of thermodynamics there is an upper limit to how efficient these plants can be.

Typical nuclear power plants achieve efficiencies around 33-37%, comparable to fossil fueled power plants. Higher temperature and more modern designs like the Generation IV nuclear reactors could potentially reach above 45% efficiency.[6]

Further Reading

Please visit the following pages for much more information on nuclear science and its role in the energy industry.


  1. IEA (2014), "World energy balances", IEA World Energy Statistics and Balances (database). DOI: (Accessed February 2015)
  2. Wikimedia Commons [Online], Available:
  3. NRC. (June 25 2015). Boiling Water Reactor [Online], Available:
  4. 4.0 4.1 J.R. Lamarsh and A.J. Baratta, "Non-Nuclear Components of Nuclear Power Plants" in Introduction to Nuclear Engineering, 3rd ed., Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2001, ch.4, sec.3, pp. 129-133
  5. wikimedia Commons [Online], Available:
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 World Nuclear Association. (June 30 2015). Nuclear Power Reactors [Online], Available:
  7. Michael Kappel on Flickr [Online], Available:
  8. J.R. Lamarsh and A.J. Baratta, "Power Reactors and Nuclear Steam Supply Systems" in Introduction to Nuclear Engineering, 3rd ed., Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2001, ch.4, sec.5, pp. 136-185

Authors and Editors

Jordan Hanania, Kailyn Stenhouse, Jason Donev
Last updated: September 18, 2015
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