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How nuclear power is used to make electricity

Heat from a nuclear reactor heats liquid into steam to spin a turbine and generator.

The basic fuel for a nuclear power plant is uranium, which is mined from the ground. It must then be formulated into expensive and complex fuel components for utility use.

A little uranium can last a long time, making it a promising, incredibly cheap power source. And it produces none of the pollution or greenhouse gas that comes from burning coal or natural gas. But the concentrated radioactivity in the nuclear reactor is potentially so dangerous that complex, expensive safety measures need to be part of any nuclear plant. Highly technical control systems need to be in place to slow or shut down the level of heat produced, and the nuclear reactor needs to be inside a strong containment building to keep radioactivity out of the atmosphere in the event of a low-probability accident in the reactor core.

The biggest issue is how to dispose of the spent nuclear fuel, which can stay radioactive for millions of years before it is reduced to naturally occurring levels. Most spent fuel is stored in pools of water and dry storage casks at the nuclear plant site.

Nuclear power generates about one-fifth of the nation’s electricity.

Heat produced by coal, natural gas and nuclear power generates about 80 percent of our electricity. The rest comes mainly from hydroelectricity, solar and wind.

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