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?

Nuclear power reaches for the moon

The UK Space Agency has announced £2.9mn of new funding for Rolls-Royce’s micro-reactor project as an initial demonstration of a UK lunar modular nucl...

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Nuclear-powered clean hydrogen facility begins production in US

Hydrogen production has begun at a 1 MW demonstration-scale, nuclear-powered clean hydrogen production facility at Constellation’s Nine Mile Point nuc...

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Decarbonised power system by 2035 ‘not possible’ at current pace of delivery

A decarbonised power system is the ‘central requirement’ for achieving net zero in the UK and the prize for all modern economies, according to the lat...

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Global carbon emissions rose less than initially feared in 2022

Global energy-related CO2 emissions rose by under 1% in 2022 – less than initially feared and far smaller than the exceptional jump of over 6% in 2021...

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EU policy pushing net zero targets

Among the new developments, the European Parliament formally approved a law that will effectively ban the sale of new petrol and diesel cars and vans ...

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Events and training

Human Factors Foundation - April 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

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

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

IP 499: Determination of aromatic carbon content of lubricant mineral base oils and middle distillate petroleum fractions - Carbon-13 nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy method

This standard specifies procedures for determining the aromatic carbon content  of mineral base oils within the range of 0,6 % mole to 13,8 ...

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IP PM EO: Determination of Olefin content - High resolution Fourier transform nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy method

ScopeThis method covers the determination olefin content of hydrocarbon oils. These include crude oils, heavy fuel oils, middle distillates: diesels w...

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Nuclear human factors conference papers, held on 16 September 2010

Human factors encompasses what people are being asked to do, who is doing it, and where they are working, all of which is influenced by a wider organi...

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Disposal of nuclear waste at sea

This report was prepared to review current developments and to identify industrial opportunities in the UK in the field of disposal of nuclear waste a...

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IP 392: Determination of aromatic hydrogen and carbon content - High resolution nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy method

This method covers the determination of aromatic hydrogen and aromatic carbon contents of hydrocarbon oils. These include kerosines, gas oils, mineral...

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