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How does nuclear power work?

Nuclear power generating station in Pickering, Ontario (bukharova, iStockphoto)

STEM in Context

How Does Nuclear Energy Work?

Let's Talk Science

Summary

Learn how electricity is generated at a nuclear power generating station.
Nuclear Power - How it Works (2014) by Ontario Power Generation (3:06 min.).

Nuclear energy provides about 15% of Canada's electricity. As of 2019, Canada has 19 nuclear reactors. 18 are in Ontario. One is in New Brunswick. 


So how does nuclear energy generate electricity? Let’s find out. 


People often use thermal energy to generate electricity. Thermal energy is another name for “heat energy.” Thermal energy heats water. The heated water forms steam. Many places around the world burn fossil fuels to get this heat. Some examples of fossil fuels are:

  • coal
  • oil (petroleum)
  • natural gases
     

Nuclear reactors also use heat to generate electricity. But nuclear power plants don’t burn fossil fuels for heat. Instead, they use uranium for fuel. Uranium is a chemical element. It gives off energy naturally. A lot of uranium in Canada comes from the Athabasca Basin. That is a region in Northern Saskatchewan.  

Uranium atoms split apart through a process called fission. When many atoms split at the same time, there is a huge release of energy.  This energy is released in the form of heat energy. This heat energy boils water. The boiled water creates steam. The steam flows to turbines. Turbines are connected to a shaft that spins. The shaft runs through the turbine into a generator. The generator generates electricity.

Then, a system pumps in cold water. This cold water comes from an outside body of water. For example, sometimes it comes from a lake. The cold water cools and condenses the steam. The cooling steam turns back to liquid water. 

The parts and systems in a nuclear power plant
The parts and systems in a nuclear power plant (Let’s Talk Science using an image by Inductiveload [CC BY-SA 2.5] via Wikimedia Commons).

 

Uranium fuel is radioactive. That’s why it can generate electricity. But over time, uranium fuel becomes less radioactive. Eventually, it will no longer be radioactive enough. When that happens, the spent fuel must be stored. 

Nuclear reactors do not emit carbon dioxide. That’s a big advantage. But they do produce radioactive spent fuel. This fuel keeps decaying for many years. It is important to store that fuel safely. 
 

Starting Points

Connecting and Relating
  • Is there a nuclear power plant close to where you live? What is the name of that plant?
  • Do you know what source(s) of energy powers your home? Are there appliances, lights or devices in your home that use another source of energy?  
     
Connecting and Relating
  • Is there a nuclear power plant close to where you live? What is the name of that plant?
  • Do you know what source(s) of energy powers your home? Are there appliances, lights or devices in your home that use another source of energy?  
     
Relating Science and Technology to Society and the Environment
  • How does nuclear power impact the environment differently than power from fossil fuels? 
  • What factors might influence or determine the source of energy that is used in your community? 
     
Relating Science and Technology to Society and the Environment
  • How does nuclear power impact the environment differently than power from fossil fuels? 
  • What factors might influence or determine the source of energy that is used in your community? 
     
Exploring Concepts
  • What is a nuclear power generating station? 
  • What is the purpose of the uranium pellets in a nuclear reactor? 
  • What form of energy is produced as a result of nuclear fission? How does that energy becomes electrical energy?  
  • How is steam used in a nuclear power station? How is the steam recycled? 
  • What waste products are produced from generating nuclear energy? What happens to this waste material?
  • Do you think it is necessary to have different sources of energy to produce electricity? Why or why not?
     
Exploring Concepts
  • What is a nuclear power generating station? 
  • What is the purpose of the uranium pellets in a nuclear reactor? 
  • What form of energy is produced as a result of nuclear fission? How does that energy becomes electrical energy?  
  • How is steam used in a nuclear power station? How is the steam recycled? 
  • What waste products are produced from generating nuclear energy? What happens to this waste material?
  • Do you think it is necessary to have different sources of energy to produce electricity? Why or why not?
     
Media Literacy
  • Have you seen any advertisements specifically about nuclear power? What do these advertisements focus on? How would you advertise nuclear power?
Media Literacy
  • Have you seen any advertisements specifically about nuclear power? What do these advertisements focus on? How would you advertise nuclear power?
Teaching Suggestions
  • This video and article can be used to support teaching and learning of Physics, Technology & Engineering, Nuclear Energy and Electricity related to heat transfer and  generating electricity. Concepts introduced include nuclear power plants,electricity, heat energy, uranium, element, fission, steam, turbines, shaft and generator.
  • Before viewing the video and reading the article, teachers could provide students with a Vocabulary Preview to help engage prior knowledge and introduce new terminology. Ready-to-use Vocabulary Preview learning strategy reproducibles are available in [Google doc] and [PDF] formats.
  • During video viewing, teachers could have students use an Importance Line learning strategy to help students note and organize the key points from the video. Ready-to-use Importance Line reproducibles for this video are available in [Google doc] and [PDF] formats.
  • To help students consolidate learning, teachers could have students create a graphic organizer that outlines the basic steps of generating electricity in a nuclear power plant, starting with the heat energy produced from nuclear fission.    
     
Teaching Suggestions
  • This video and article can be used to support teaching and learning of Physics, Technology & Engineering, Nuclear Energy and Electricity related to heat transfer and  generating electricity. Concepts introduced include nuclear power plants,electricity, heat energy, uranium, element, fission, steam, turbines, shaft and generator.
  • Before viewing the video and reading the article, teachers could provide students with a Vocabulary Preview to help engage prior knowledge and introduce new terminology. Ready-to-use Vocabulary Preview learning strategy reproducibles are available in [Google doc] and [PDF] formats.
  • During video viewing, teachers could have students use an Importance Line learning strategy to help students note and organize the key points from the video. Ready-to-use Importance Line reproducibles for this video are available in [Google doc] and [PDF] formats.
  • To help students consolidate learning, teachers could have students create a graphic organizer that outlines the basic steps of generating electricity in a nuclear power plant, starting with the heat energy produced from nuclear fission.    
     

Learn more

Global Statistical Electricity Production (2018) 

This Interactive statistical website that shows global stats, as well as the stats of individual countries, for different aspects of the energy industry, including production, consumption, and trade.

Nuclear Energy Explained: How Does it Work? (2015) 

This video (5:17 min.) by Kurzgesagt provides an overview of the history of nuclear energy,  how nuclear reactors work, and opinions about its use.

References

Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission. (2018, December 12). Nuclear power plant safety systems.

Chandler, N. (2012, August 29). How does nuclear waste disposal work? HowStuffWorks.

Whitlock, J. (2019, April 6). Canadian nuclear FAQ. Nuclear FAQ.