Nuclear energy is the energy in the nucleus of an atom--it is the energy that holds neutrons and protons. Nuclear energy can be used to produce electricity. This energy can be obtained in two ways: nuclear fusion and nuclear fission. In nuclear fusion, energy is released when atoms are combined (or fused together) to form a larger atom. Nuclear fission is when atoms are split apart, releasing energy. All nuclear power plants use nuclear fission, and most nuclear power plants use uranium atoms.[1] These plants produce energy by generating steam, which turns turbines, thus generating electricity.[2]

Uranium is the fuel most widely used by nuclear plants for nuclear fission. There are three forms of uranium that naturally occur: U-234, U-235, and U-238.[3] U-235—a less stable form of the atom—fissions, or splits. The neutrons released from the splitting U-235 atoms hit other uranium atoms, causing them to fission as well. Fission occurs within the reactor, and, at the reactor’s center is the core, which holds the uranium fuel. The uranium fuel is converted into ceramic pellets, where each ceramic pellet creates the same amount of energy as 150 gallons of oil. The heat produced during the nuclear fission process boils water into steam, which then turns the blades of the steam turbines to produce electricity.[1] Used nuclear fuel is stored at the nation’s nuclear power plants in steel-lined, concrete pools or basins filled with water or steel-reinforced concrete containers.[4]

Updated by Kristin Stiner, November 2020