With the news about the horrible failure of the nuclear reactors in Japan, it occurred to me that many people do not really understand how nuclear reactors work. This is the first part of a short series designed to demystify how nuclear reactors work.
All methods for generation of usable amounts of electricity require some sort of energy source. In photovoltaic units, the electromagnetic energy in solar (or other) photons is the energy source. In geothermal plants, the interior heat energy from the earth is used, whilst in wind plants the kinetic energy of moving air is used. Hydroelectric plants use the kinetic energy of moving water.
Fossil fuel fired plants use the potential energy contained in coal, oil, or gas by converting it to heat by combustion. Finally, nuclear electricity uses the potential energy of a very few heavy elements’ nuclei that is released as heat in the reactor.