What is Nuclear Energy?
Many people today are asking: What is nuclear energy? Interest is growing because many businesses and residential power users are seeking cleaner, more efficient alternatives to coal and natural gas.
Just what is nuclear power? When a uranium atom is split in a process called fission, it releases heat. Nuclear power plants use that heat to boil water to create steam that drives turbines to create electricity. Let’s get into the details.
How Do We Get Nuclear Energy?
If you’re wondering how we get nuclear energy, here is a simple definition and explanation of nuclear energy.
Nuclear power plants use a form of uranium called U-235. Each atom contains 92 protons and 142 neutrons. Added together they total 235, hence the name U-235. Because neutrons outnumber protons, the extra neutrons are prone to leaving the atom in a process known as decay.
When those neutrons leave one atom, they can bounce off other atoms, causing the atoms to split and release heat in a process called fission. When the neutrons start hitting other atoms, splitting them, then releasing more neutrons, you’ve got a chain reaction.
The heat from this chain reaction boils water to create steam. The steam then turns turbines that produce electricity. Nuclear power plants control the chain reaction and the amount of steam and electricity by cooling the uranium in water and also by inserting control rods between the uranium fuel rods that block and absorb neutrons. These methods slow or even stop the reaction.
Uranium is a common element that is readily available in the United States. Even so, most of the uranium used to fuel power plants is imported because it’s cheaper to mine and process elsewhere.
Nuclear power plants are located in 28 states across the U.S. Most plants are located in the Eastern half of the United States where demand for electricity is the highest. The nuclear power plants generate about 19 percent of the energy used in the U.S.
Benefits of Nuclear Energy
Energy companies invest in nuclear power for a number of important reasons including safety, efficiency, and care for the environment. Among our sources of electricity, Constellation’s industry-leading nuclear fleet provides these benefits:
- Nuclear is a zero-carbon energy source. No coal or natural gas is burned to create nuclear energy. Because nuclear power plants emit no greenhouse gasses, they’re a clean energy source.
- Nuclear energy is a reliable source of electricity. Renewable energy from wind and solar can vary with the weather. Nuclear energy provides a stable flow of power to meet demand and keep the grid balanced.
- Nuclear energy enables expanded use of renewables. We can deploy more variable energy sources, like wind and power, because we have the firm capacity from nuclear power plants.
- Nuclear power is efficient. A pellet of uranium fuel is about the size of a pencil eraser. It has the same amount of energy as a ton of coal, 17,000 cubic feet of natural gas, or 3 barrels of oil. Considering how many pellets are in a single fuel rod and how many fuel rods are in an entire power plant, the amount of fossil fuel saved can be considerable.
- Nuclear power is affordable. The cost of nuclear power is very stable over time and is competitive with other forms of carbon free generation. It is considerably less expensive than fossil fuel power in the current commodity price environment and even more attractive when considering the cost of avoided greenhouse gas emissions.
- Nuclear power cuts transportation costs. Coal plants require daily trainloads of fuel to keep running. Nuclear power plants need to be refueled every year or two. Transporting fuel adds to greenhouse gasses, so minimizing shipping is important.
- Nuclear power is safe. The safety record of nuclear power plants in the United States is admirable across more than 60 years of operations. Compared to other industrial sites, and power plants in particular, nuclear power plants rank at the top when it comes to safety. Practicing nuclear safety adds to the inherently low risk operation of these kinds of plants.
Constellation Is a Leading Provider of Nuclear Energy
Now that you know the answer to the question, what is nuclear energy, and understand its benefits, it is easy to see why Constellation is proud to have the nation’s largest carbon-free nuclear fleet. Nuclear energy is a core part of our commitment to provide affordable, clean energy that supports our customers and protects the environment.