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?

Solar and battery storage to make up 81% of new power capacity in US

28/02/2024

This addition would be 55% greater added capacity than the 40.4 GW added in 2023 (the most since 2003) and points to a continued rise in industry acti...

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Global LNG demand is set to grow significantly beyond 2040, driven by Far East markets; plus African project news

21/02/2024

Shell’s LNG Outlook 2024 report notes that global trade in LNG reached 404mn tonnes in 2023, up from 397mn tonnes in 2022, with tight supplies of LNG ...

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IEA anticipates that clean energy will reach record levels in next three years

31/01/2024

The report finds that while global growth in electricity demand eased slightly to 2.2% in 2023 due to falling electricity consumption in advanced econ...

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Primary loop construction begins at world’s first new-generation lead-cooled fast reactor

24/01/2024

A 300 MW nuclear power plant powered by a lead-cooled BREST-OD-300 fast reactor is the key element of the PDEC which is being built at Siberian Chemic...

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ScottishPower to kickstart largest overhaul of UK grid

24/01/2024

With electricity demand forecast to double in the next 10 years, the International Energy Agency (IEA) says the UK needs more than 600,000 km of new o...

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Events and training

Human Factors Foundation - April 2024

15/04/2024 - 19/04/2024

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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Age and Life Extension of Offshore Structures

16/04/2024 - 17/04/2024

This two half-day online course will give you an understanding of managing ageing and life extension of structures for offshore oil and gas installati...

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UK Energy Policy Debate: Battle for Energy Ideas

18/04/2024

This April sees the return of the Energy Institute’s Energy Policy Debates, exploring the ‘Battle of the Energy Ideas’, where distin...

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Human Factors Foundation - November 2024

04/11/2024 - 08/11/2024

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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