How Does Nuclear Energy Work?

A nuclear reactor produces electricity in much the same way other power plants do.  Some form of energy creates heat, which turns water into steam.  The pressure of the steam turns a generator, which produces electricity.

The difference is in how the heat is created. Power plants that run on fossil fuels burn coal, oil or natural gas to generate heat.  In a nuclear energy facility, heat is produced from splitting atoms – a process called nuclear fission.


  1. nuclear reactor creates heat that is used to make steam
  2. the steam turns a turbine connected to an electromagnet, called a generator
  3. the generator produces electricity

In a Pressurized Water Reactor – the type of reactor being built in the UAE – high pressure prevents water in the reactor vessel from boiling. The super-heated water is carried to a steam generator, which is made up of many small pipes. The heat in these pipes is used to turn a second, isolated, supply of water to steam, which is in turn used to drive the turbine. The water from the reactor is pumped back into the reactor vessel and reheated. The steam from the turbine is cooled in a condenser and the resulting water is sent back to the steam generator.



Enriched uranium is the fuel for nuclear reactors.  Uranium is an abundant, naturally radioactive element found in most rocks.  As uranium breaks down or decays, it produces heat inside the Earth’s crust.  A similar process generates heat inside a nuclear reactor.

Nuclear Fission
Fission is the process of splitting a nucleus in two.

Inside each uranium fuel pellet, there are millions of uranium nuclei.  When these nuclei are split, a huge amount of energy is released.  Some of this energy is from radiation, but the biggest source is kinetic energy.  This is the energy that produces heat inside a reactor, which in turn is used to generate steam, and ultimately creates electricity.


A naturally occurring, mildly radioactive element. Uranium-235 is an isotope found as approximately 0.7 percent of natural uranium. Uranium-235 can undergo fission, making it an ideal fuel for nuclear reactors.
Nuclear reactor

The part of a nuclear power plant where nuclear fission occurs, producing heat.

A basic component of matter. An atom is the smallest part of an element and has all the chemical properties of that element. An atom consists of a nucleus (that contains protons and neutrons) and surrounding electrons. Nuclear energy binds the nucleus together.
Nuclear energy

The energy that is released during a nuclear reaction. Splitting atoms (fission) and fusing atoms (fusion) both release nuclear energy. Today's nuclear power plants use fission to produce energy, which allow them to generate electricity on a large scale.
Nuclear fission

When the nucleus of an atom splits and releases energy, primarily in the form of heat. Nuclear power plants use steam, turbines and generators to turn the heat released by fission into electricity.
Reactor vessel

A steel container that holds the reactor’s core, moderator, coolant and control rods.

Matter that contains only one type of atom, such as oxygen. There are 94 naturally occurring elements, including uranium.
Fuel pellet

A small piece of uranium oxide used in nuclear fuel. Machines press the oxide into cylinders and furnaces sinter them until they are hard. Then, fuel pellets are loaded into fuel rods. Each pellet is about the size of a pencil eraser and contains more energy than a barrel of oil.
Kinetic energy

The energy an object has due to its motion. The amount depends on the object’s mass and velocity.
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