Nuclear Power Plant Definition, History, Principle, and Components

A nuclear power plant (NPP) is a facility which utilizes radioactive materials to derive nuclear energy that is used to operate an electric generator.

The definition above is similar to the general definition of power plants, and distinguished from coal, biomass and diesel plants only by the nuclear energy that is used.

This article discusses nuclear power plants, according to the following outline;


-Nuclear Power Plant Definition: 7 Ways to Define a Nuclear Power Plant

-History of Nuclear Power Plants

-Working Principle of a Nuclear Power Plant

-Components of a Nuclear Power Plant

-Safety and Environment

-Nuclear Power Plants in the World










Nuclear Power Plant Definition: 7 Ways to Define a Nuclear Power Plant

A nuclear power plant is a facility that uses nuclear energy to generate electricity.

The above definition suggests that nuclear power plants depend primarily on nuclear energy [30]. This is an essential characteristic which differentiates the nuclear power plant from other facilities that utilize alternative energy sources, like coal, biomass and petroleum-driven power plants.

Given that the primary form of energy in a nuclear power plant is nuclear energy, it is beneficial to outline the basic conversion process by which this energy is used to generate electricity;

A nuclear power plant is an electricity generation system, in which heat energy from a nuclear fuel is used to produce steam, which drives the turbine of an electric generator to generate power.

As the above definition indicates, a nuclear fuel must be present in order for electricity to be produced by a nuclear power plant. This and other related factors are mentioned below;

A nuclear power plant is a facility which depends on the derivation of heat through nuclear fission of radioactive atoms such as uranium-235 and plutonium-239, to generate electricity by a series of energy conversions [4].

Some perspectives portray nuclear energy as a renewable form of energy, although nuclear fuel is itself a finite (non-renewable) resource. The following definition highlights the relationship between the concepts of nuclear power technology, renewable energy and sustainability;

A nuclear power plant is a system which uses non-renewable nuclear fuel to produce recyclable nuclear energy that is further converted through sustainable mechanisms, for the generation of electricity.

The argument that nuclear energy is renewable, is based on the fact that nuclear fission reactions may proceed spontaneously through regenerative mechanisms, for very long periods of time [37].

It is also strengthened by the presence of nuclear breeder reactors, which recycle nuclear fuels in a continuous process of nuclear fission, thereby prolonging the lifespan and energy-efficiency of these fuels [31].

A major question regarding nuclear power plant technology is its potential impact on the environment and safety. The following definition mildly addresses this question;

Nuclear power plant is an energy facility that generates electricity from radioactive materials, with relatively-low greenhouse emissions and toxic waste that can be controlled through effective maintenance and environmental remediation.

While there have been arguments stating that nuclear power plants are emission-free, green and environment-friendly, it is important to acknowledge that the generation of electricity from nuclear energy poses some risks to health, safety and the environment.

These risks involve the emission of carbon dioxide, and contamination of the environment with radioactive materials that are hazardous to health [2]. The Chernobyl disaster which occurred in Ukraine in 1986 is an example of the potential negative impact of nuclear power production when the reactors and entire system are not effectively maintained [33].

Below is another definition of nuclear power plants, which highlights the role of reactors in the power generation process;

A nuclear power plant is an energy system that depends on heat energy released when radioactive atoms undergo splitting or fission in a reactor, to generate electricity.

The use of a reactor in nuclear power generation makes it similar to some waste-to-energy technologies like pyrolysis, which also make use of a reactor as a closed system in which energy is produced.

Another context in which a nuclear power plant can be defined, is the context of power generation proportions;

A nuclear power plant is a facility which contributes to the 10% of nuclear power that is used across the globe [36], through the conversion of nuclear energy to electricity.


History of Nuclear Power Plants

The development of nuclear power plant technology can be said to have commenced fully in the twentieth century.

By this time, nuclear reactor designs had been improved to achieve higher effectiveness and efficiency. The new designs were collectively referred to as the Generation II reactors [10], and were equipped to serve industrial and commercial power generation purposes.

Dynamics of nuclear fuels became known after the discovery of nuclear fission in 1939 [23]. In 1942, nuclear physicist Enrico Fermi published his discovery of a sustainable nuclear chain reaction process by which nuclear fuels could be maximized [11].

The chain reaction discovery influenced some modifications to nuclear power plant design, such as the inclusion of heat transfer components to capture and convey radioactive decay heat.

Between the 1940s and 1950s, nuclear power plant technology prominently featured simple reactor designs with graphite moderators and uranium fuel.

In 1946, a chain reaction process was conducted under controlled conditions in Moscow, Russia, using uranium (with graphite moderator). This led to the development of the first plutonium reactor in Russia in 1948.

Using the knowledge of nuclear chain fission, the first practical operation of a fast breeder nuclear power plant was carried out in 1951 when the experimental breeder reactor (EBR-I) was used to generate electricity that powered light bulbs [8]. This type of reactor is also called “liquid metal reactor” (LMR).

The first nuclear power plant used to supply electricity to the grid was the Obninsk Power Plant, deployed in 1954 [18].

In the year 1955, the first nuclear reactor in the United States; BORAX-III was deployed to supply power to the utility grid [32]. The year 1956 saw the deployment of Calder Hall; the first nuclear power station in the United Kingdom [6].

Three graphite-moderated nuclear reactors; G1, G2, and G3 were deployed between 1956 and 1959 in France [17].

The 1950s to 1970s saw major developments in nuclear power plant technology. In 1962, the first nuclear reactor in Canada; the CANDU reactor was deployed, having a production capacity of 20 megawatts [26]. This was soon followed by a commercial-scale nuclear power plant in 1971.

Several countries increased their nuclear power generation in the 1970s, including the United States and France.

While there was a decline in the interest and development of nuclear power following disasters in the 1970s and 1980s, the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries have seen a relative growth in the rate of growth of nuclear power plant technology. These developments have been simultaneous with advancements in other areas of nuclear energy application.


Working Principle of a Nuclear Power Plant

A nuclear power plant works by splitting radioactive atoms and converting the heat released into mechanical energy through the production of steam that is used to drive a turbine and generate power.

This process occurs in three main stages which are; nuclear fission, steam production and electricity generation. They are discussed individually as follows;


1). Nuclear Fission (Stage 1 in the Nuclear Power Plant Working Principle)

The first stage in the working principle or operational process of a nuclear power plant is fission.

Nuclear fission occurs when the nucleus of radioactive nuclear fuel like uranium-235, splits to form new atoms (reaction products).

The radioactive fuel is usually fed into the nuclear reactor in form of ceramic pellets [7]. These pre-formed pellets may each produce large amounts of energy that far exceed that of fossil fuels. As a result, nuclear fuels are said to have significantly higher energy efficiency than fossil fuels.

Uranium is the most common nuclear fuel used in nuclear power plants to generate electricity. This is because of the highly-fissile nature of radioactive uranium isotopes, especially uranium-235; which increased the ease, effectiveness and efficiency of fission.

When stacked end-to-end and in bundles, nuclear fuel pellets may be collectively called fuel rods and fuel assemblies respectively. These bundles are fed into the reactor.

The entire process of nuclear fission occurs predominantly in the reactor, which is designed to facilitate the process under closed-systemic conditions.

When radioactive nuclear fuel splits during fission, new products are formed. In the case of uranium fuel, isotopic atoms of barium, strontium, xenon, iodine and caesium may be formed [24].

In a breeder nuclear reactor, these fission products are not discarded as waste, but are rather recycled and used to produce more nuclear energy through a sustainable chain reaction process. Nuclear energy produced is used in the next stage of the working principle.


2). Steam Production (Stage 2 in the Nuclear Power Plant Working Principle)

In the second stage of the working principle of a nuclear power plant, the hear energy released from nuclear fission is used to produce steam.

A heat exchanger unit referred to as the steam generator is often used for this purpose in a nuclear power plant [5].

The steam generator generally occurs as a U-shaped tube mechanically coupled with a drum which stores water that is pumped through the reactor core and heated with energy released during nuclear fission. This heating converts the water to steam. Steam that is produced in this manner may vary in volume, depending on the power capacity of the nuclear power plant.


3). Electricity Generation (Stage 3 in the Nuclear Power Plant Working Principle)

Typically, a nuclear power plant has an electric generator which helps in the final conversion that transforms the nuclear energy originally derived from fission, to electricity.

This generator is itself equipped with a turbine, that converts the kinetic energy of steam to mechanical energy of rotation [20].

In a nuclear power plant, the turbine is driven by steam which is produced from nuclear energy through heating, and fed into the turbine unit using pipes. When this steam is made to collide with the blades of the turbine, rotary notion is induced. This motion indicated that kinetic energy of steam has been converted to mechanical energy that drives the turbine.

Essentially, the working principle of a nuclear power plant involves three unique phases of energy conversion, which are;

-Chemical/Nuclear to Heat Energy Conversion (by fission)

-Heat to Kinetic Energy Conversion (by vaporization or steam production)

-Kinetic to Mechanical Energy Conversion (by induced turbine rotation)


After the turbine has been set in motion by steam kinetic energy, it begins to rotate within a magnetic field provided by either a permanent magnet or electromagnet. This rotation soon induces current flow in the turbine shaft or any other conductive part of the mechanical apparatus in the generator system.

As a result of such current flow, electricity is generated. The process by which this occurs is known as electromagnetic induction [22].

It is important to note that the water used to produce steam in a nuclear power plant is usually derived from a sustainable source, such as a well-maintained artificial reservoir or a natural water body.

After the water which has been converted to steam, has been used to drive the turbine and generate electricity, it may be cooled and condensed back to liquid using a cooling tower/condenser system. It may also be reheated and reused to drive the turbine.

Nuclear energy, Nuclear reactor, Nuclear power plant
Working Principle of a Nuclear Power Plant


Components of a Nuclear Power Plant

The components or parts of a nuclear power plant include; reactor, fuel unit, steam generator, safety system, turbine, condenser, alternator, transformer, cooling tower and waste management system.

These components are each discussed below;


1). Reactor System as one of the Components of a nuclear power plant

The reactor system includes all parts of a nuclear power plant that regulate the fission of nuclear fuel and release of nuclear energy in the form of heat.

Subcomponents that make up the reactor system include reactor vessel, control rods, moderator and pressure regulation unit.  

Among these, the reactor vessel and control rods are perhaps most important. The reactor vessel may come in various scales and designs depending on specific needs. However, it generally occurs as a steel vessel in which nuclear chain reactions take place under controlled conditions, as radioactive fuel breaks down through fission [21].

Control rods absorb neutrons that are emitted as fission occurs in the nuclear reactor [1]. They are important to the control of the fission process, as they are used to regulate neutron release and abundance, which determine the sustainability and reactivity of energy production in the reactor system.


2). Fuel Handling Unit

Fuel in a nuclear power plant is often considered to be a subcomponent of the nuclear reactor system.

It is however an essential factor that is required in order for a nuclear power plant to generate electricity at all.

Nuclear fuels are fed into the reactor in a form or state that makes it easy for them to undergo fission. In most cases, this is in the form is solid, pre-shaped (usually cylindrical) pellets that are enclosed in metal rods [16].

After the nuclear fuel has been introduced into the reactor, it is bombarded by neutrons [19]. Collision between the radioactive atoms of the fuel, and the neutrons, causes these atoms to split and release significant amounts of nuclear energy in the form of heat.

Enriched uranium oxide is a common form in which nuclear fuel occurs.  

Fuel Bundle used in a Nuclear Power Plant (Credit: Japo 2007)
Fuel Bundle used in a Nuclear Power Plant (Credit: Japo 2007)


3). Steam Generator as one of the Components of a Nuclear Power Plant

The steam generator in a nuclear power plant is essentially a heat exchanger unit which contains water that it circulates (by the help of a pump) through the reactor core.

The water being circulated by the steam generator, derives heat from the reactor core which is produced from nuclear fission of the fuel. As a result, the water soon exceeds its boiling temperature and converts to vapor (steam).

Most modern nuclear power plants are designed to be conservative closed systems in which water is effectively recycled, so that steam is subsequently condensed and may be used as cooling fluid, and vice-versa.


4). Steam Turbine

The turbine in a nuclear power plant converts kinetic energy of steam to mechanical energy of rotation.

Steam is fed to the turbine by the steam generator. This steam is usually pressurized and exerts force across the surface area of the turbine blades, thereby forcing the turbine to rotate around its axis.

Based on mode of operation, steam turbines in nuclear power plants can be distinguished into high pressure (HP) and low pressure (LP) turbines [15]. There is also a broad range of power magnitude that can be generated by these turbines.

Generally, the size of the steam turbine determines the power generation capacity of the nuclear power plant. This can amount to hundreds or thousands of megawatts.

Steam Turbine of a Nuclear Power Plant (Credit: Christine und David Schmitt 2009 .CC BY 2.0.)
Steam Turbine of a Nuclear Power Plant (Credit: Christine und David Schmitt 2009 .CC BY 2.0.)


5). Safety System as one of the Components of a Nuclear Power Plant

The safety system of a nuclear power plant is responsible for most of the regulatory and control functions of the plant.

It consists of subcomponents like reactor-protector, emergency power, cooling and water circulation units, pressurizers, boilers and containment building.  

The containment building is one of the most important components of the safety system. It occurs as a protective vessel or building that encloses some parts of the nuclear power plant like the reactor and cooling units, and it mitigates environmental degradation and associated risks by preventing leakage from the reactor and other vessels.   

Other safety system subcomponents act as auxiliary (backup) units that support main components to ensure that the power plant is fairly reliable.


6). Condenser Unit

As the name implies, the condenser unit in a nuclear power plant is responsible for converting steam back to liquid form in a safe and sustainable manner, through controlled condensation [27].

The condenser can be described simply as a heat exchanger which houses and circulates a coolant, that absorbs the heat from vapor in the system and causes the vapor to liquefy.

In many nuclear power plants, water is used as the coolant in this condenser unit. The water may be derived from an artificial reservoir or natural water body like sea or river. Liquid metal coolant (LMC) may also be used in nuclear plants, with examples including sodium and lead compounds [35].

A pump and circulation mechanism makes the use of this water for cooling and condensation to be sustainable, so that water which has been used for cooling may be recycled either internally or externally.

In the case of external recycling of the coolant, used water is pumped back into the source, as fresh water is pumped from the source into the condenser unit in a continuous cycle. Some form of remediation is often needed before the water can be returned to its source.

The condenser unit is believed to improve the efficiency of the turbine generator in nuclear power plants, by ensuring that vapor which is fed into the turbine system is of optimal temperature and pressure, through the use of consistent heating and cooling cycles (so that vapor is not ‘reused’ at less than optimal temperature and pressure).


7). Alternator

The alternator is an important subcomponent of the electric generator in a nuclear power plant.

It provides as a rotor which is coupled to the turbine and equipped with conductor material through which current flows as electricity is generated [13].

Due to the presence of slip rings that continuously reverse current direction flowing through the conductor material, the alternator is able to generate alternating current (AC), which is the conventional type of current electricity that is used to power electric systems and appliances.


8). Transformer as one of the Components of a Nuclear Power Plant

The main function of a transformer in a power plant is to ‘step up’ voltage [3].

Another way to describe this function is to ‘increase tension’ of current flow. When voltage is stepped up, it is simply increased. Transformers may also step down voltage as required.

The objective of stepping up voltage is to improve the efficiency of power transmission. When voltage is suitably increased, transmission losses are minimized, and power can be transmitted over long distances with minimal loss [28].

It can be said therefore that transformers help power plants to achieve energy conservation, since they minimize energy wastage and loss. The step-up or step-down voltage of any power plant is determined by factors like the amount of power being transmitted and the distance of transmission.


9). Cooling Tower as one of the Components of a Nuclear Power Plant

A hyperboloid cooling tower is one of the most common components of nuclear power plants, as well as other types of power plants like coal and diesel-driven plants.

The cooling tower can be considered to be a subcomponent of the temperature-regulation system in a nuclear power plant, whose other subcomponents will include condenser, steam generator, conduits and other heat exchangers.

In order to regulate the temperature of the nuclear power plant, a cooling tower serves as an outlet for excessive and unwanted heat. This heat is usually released into the atmosphere, so that the degree of vapor saturation (and liquid-vapor balance) in the power plant can be controlled.

Cooling towers work together with the condenser to recycle and circulate coolant fluid [25]. When the coolant has absorbed heat from steam (thereby causing it to condense) in the power plant, it is circulated through the cooling tower and loses temperature to the atmosphere.

A pressurizer also works alongside the cooling tower and condenser, to regulate vapor pressure and prevent over-saturation.


10). Radiation Waste Management System as one of the Components of a Nuclear Power Plant

The radiation waste management system in a nuclear power plant comprises of all components that are involved in the collection and removal of radioactive waste from the plant.

Nuclear reactors are equipped with auxiliary components that collect residue from fission of nuclear fuel. These include collector vessels and coolant systems. Nuclear waste may be collected in other units of the power plant, which are also considered to be part of the radiation waste management system.

A Nuclear Power Plant (Credit: Tennessee Valley Authority 2013)
A Nuclear Power Plant (Credit: Tennessee Valley Authority 2013)


Safety and Environment

Although it has been suggested that nuclear energy and nuclear power plants have zero emissions, greenhouse gases are released when nuclear energy is used to generate electricity [12]. This means that nuclear energy is not clean or green.

Compared to fossil fuel plants, the amount of pollutants and toxins released from a nuclear power plant is less. However, some toxins and pollutants are released from nuclear plants.

Various stages of nuclear power generation present the threat of environmental degradation, and these include fuel mining and processing, plant construction, operation and decommissioning stages.

Mining of uranium, the most common nuclear fuel, usually involves the release of large amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere [29]. Mine tailings and processing residue from the fuel may also be harmful to public health and safety.

Reprocessing is the process by which fission products of nuclear fuel can be recycled and reused [14]. This process reduces the volume of radioactive waste produced at nuclear power plants, while increasing the efficiency of nuclear fuel consumption.

During the operation of nuclear plants, potentially-harmful radiation can be released into the environment through mill tailings and radioactive thermal cooling fluid. This is harmful to both abiotic and biotic components of the ecosystem.

Aside soil which becomes contaminated and radioactive, aquatic ecosystems can also be polluted, so that organisms like fish may be poisoned, affecting their survival and the livelihood of humans that depend on these organisms [9].

Operation of nuclear power plants may also place high demand and strain on environmental resources like water and fuel.

Large amounts of water are required for cooling and steam generation, and fossil fuels may be burnt in the mining of uranium, which itself is highly demanded. These resources extracted from the environment can have economic and ecologic consequences.

Waste management within the vicinity of a nuclear power plant may also pose some challenges. Nuclear waste is distinguished into high-level and low-level categories, where low-level waste includes equipment, facility-components and tools from the plant, and high-level waste is radioactive fuel byproducts. Poor distinction between these two categories in waste management is a threat to safety and the environment.

Nuclear power plants generally have a lifespan of 30 to 60 years, although some modern types are designed to operate for much longer.

At the end of its lifespan, a nuclear power plant undergoes decommissioning;  which is the dismantling and removal of the facility [34]. This process has significant environmental importance, since radioactive materials have been exposed to the environment within the site of a nuclear plant.

Intensive decontamination and remediation of the soil, water and air within the site is necessary before it can be used for other purposes.

A nuclear power plant is safe to operate when it is well-maintained.




Nuclear Power Plant and Environment: Effect on Aquatic Ecosystems


Nuclear Power Plants in the World

Globally, about 10% of electricity supply comes from nuclear power plants.

These include approximately 440 nuclear reactors in 33 countries of the world (as at 2022).

The following table summarizes the number of nuclear reactors in each of these countries (in ascending order of the number of reactors);

Country Number of Nuclear Reactors
Netherlands 1
Iran 1
Armenia 1
Belarus 1
Slovenia 1
South Africa 2
Brazil 2
United Arab Emirates 2
Romania 2
Bulgaria 2
Mexico 2
Taiwan 3
Germany 3
Argentina 3
Hungary 4
Switzerland 4
Slovakia 4
Finland 5
Pakistan 6
Czechia 6
Sweden 6
Belgium 7
Spain 7
United Kingdom 11
Ukraine 15
Canada 19
India 23
South Korea 24
Japan 33
Russia 37
China 54
France 56
United States 92


As of 2022, the largest nuclear power plant in the world is Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant, which operates in Niigata prefecture, Japan, and has a capacity of 8,212 MWh. Other notable nuclear power plants are;

  1. Fukushima Daiichi plant, Okuma, Japan (4,696 MWh capacity)
  2. Paluel plant, Normandy, France (5,528 MWh capacity)
  3. Zaporizhzhia plant, Enerhodar, Ukraine (6,000 MWh capacity)
  4. Yonggwang plant, Yonggwang, South Korea (6,137 MWh capacity)
  5. Chernobyl plant, Pripyat, Ukraine (3,515 MWh capacity)



A nuclear power plant is a facility or energy system that converts nuclear energy to electricity through nuclear fission, heating and electromagnetic induction.  

The working principle of a nuclear power plant is made up of three stages which are;

  1. Nuclear Fission
  2. Steam Production
  3. Electricity Generation


Parts of a nuclear power plant include;

  1. Reactor System
  2. Fuel Handling Unit
  3. Steam Generator
  4. Steam Turbine
  5. Safety System
  6. Condenser Unit
  7. Alternator
  8. Transformer
  9. Cooling Tower
  10. Radiation Waste Management System



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