Nuclear power

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Nuclear power is the second-largest source of low-carbon electricity today, supplying 10.5% of global electricity

Nuclear power is generated by a controlled chain reaction inside a nuclear reactor, most commonly in a process called nuclear fission. In fission, neutrons collide with uranium or plutonium atoms, causing the atoms to split and release additional neutrons and energy in the form of heat. This heat is used to convert water into steam, which drives turbines to produce electricity. A nuclear reactor was first used to produce electricity in the 1950s, in light of discoveries made through research efforts previously focused on developing nuclear weaponry. A series of commercial reactors for electricity production have since been developed. Today, nuclear power is gaining importance driven by the climate change agenda since it emits minimal greenhouse gases, at levels similar to renewable energy in terms of total life cycle emissions per unit of energy generated. Nuclear power projects are heavily dependent on government policy due to their capital-intensive nature, and are strictly regulated as they deal with radioactive materials.

Nuclear power is controversial in some locations due to these radioactive materials and the potential health hazards they pose. A number of destructive accidents have occurred in the history of nuclear power; these include the Chernobyl disaster in the Soviet Union in 1986 and the Fukushima disaster in Japan in 2011. Different nations have widely different visions for the deployment of nuclear power, ranging from France’s 75% dependence on nuclear power for electricity generation to Germany having announced decision to shut down all of its nuclear power plants by 2022. Another important aspect is the disposal of nuclear waste; spent fuel remains active for tens of thousands of years and a proven long-term solution for safely managing and disposing of this radioactive waste is yet to be developed. Although newer, safer and more efficient reactor designs are being constructed today, nuclear power has an uncertain future challenged by public acceptance, costs, fuel resource sustainability and nuclear waste management.

As a potentially safer and less waste-generating type of reaction than fission, nuclear fusion is an ongoing area of research. Several experimental reactors exist, but commercial-scale results remain far from realisation. Small modular reactors are also attracting interest, as they allow for greater flexibility with potential benefits particularly for developing countries with limited grid capacity.

Learn more about nuclear power by reading our Energy Insights.

For the latest news and articles on the transport sector read New Energy World.

Read energy professional's thoughts on the future of nuclear in our Energy Barometer.

What's new?

UK energy reduction scheme creates 108 MW of grid flexibility in first test session

30/11/2022

Over 200,000 customers opted into the initiative’s first test session, which was conducted between 5–6 pm on 15 November. According to the results, th...

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New focus on European energy deals

30/11/2022

Across Europe, countries have stated their ambition to scale up their energy resilience in the wake of Russia’s unjustified military assault on Ukrain...

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UK Autumn Statement: More heat on average energy users and 45% levy on low carbon electricity generators

23/11/2022

Let’s look at the statement in detail. Energy bills: Many were concerned to learn that help with escalating energy bills is being scaled back. Fr...

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Largest private equity raise in breakthrough nuclear power innovation

16/11/2022

TerraPower was founded by Bill Gates in 2008 and focuses on the development of nuclear innovations. Its flagship technology is Natrium™, which feature...

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The beginning of the end for gas-fired power in Europe?

09/11/2022

The research shows that based on recent gas prices it would be 10 times more expensive to operate gas-fired power plants in the long term than to buil...

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Events and training

Human Factors Foundation - April 2023

17/04/2023 - 21/04/2023

This 5-day course delivers a comprehensive introduction into human factors for non-specialists. It provides a practical, engaging and interactive back...

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Introduction to Process Safety Management - May 2023

16/05/2023 - 18/05/2023

This 3-day course is based on the renowned Energy Institute High level framework for process safety management - a comprehensive proces...

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Human Factors Foundation - October 2023

02/10/2023 - 06/10/2023

This 5-day course delivers a comprehensive introduction into human factors for non-specialists. It provides a practical, engaging and interactive back...

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Technical guidance publications

Guidance on quantified human reliability analysis (QHRA)

2022

This document is free to download for all registered users of this site.EI Guidance on quantified human reliability analysis (QHRA) (second edition) p...

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Guidance on ensuring control room operator (CRO) competence

2022

This publication is free to download for registered users.Control room operators (CROs) perform a critical role in running normal operations, infreque...

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Research report: Modelling toxic hazards of sour water releases – consolidated knowledge of sour water releases physics and chemistry

2022

The EI's Process Safety Committee (PSC) has identified that many petroleum refinery and gas separation plant process operations generate aqueous solut...

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Engaging contractors: Partnership approaches to improving safety in the power industry

2022

This publication was developed in response to demand from operators and contractors within the power generation sector, recognising that the safe and ...

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Research report: Achieving greater resilience to major events – Organisational learning for safety risk management in complex environments

2021

This document is free to download for registered users.This report has been split into the following three sections:Part 1: Cultural precursors to maj...

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