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What is nuclear power?

nuclear icon 3D

Nuclear power is energy contained in atoms. This energy can be released as heat from a chain reaction in a radioactive element such as uranium. Nuclear power stations use this heat to produce steam, which drives turbines to generate electricity. According to the illustrative scenario published by the Committee on Climate Change, nuclear might deliver around 40% of the UK generation mix in 2030.

 

Carbon footprint

Nuclear power has one of the smallest carbon footprints of any energy source. The vast majority of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions associated with nuclear power stations arise during construction and fuel processing, not during electricity generation. Consequently, nuclear power is the UK's most affordable option for generating low-carbon electricity on a large scale which is important in light of the UK's carbon-reduction commitments.

Safety

Nuclear power is one of the most comprehensively regulated industries. In the UK the nuclear industry is regulated by the independent Office for Nuclear Regulation and the Environment Agency or Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA). Specific laws govern storage, transport and use of nuclear materials. The nuclear power industry operates within a culture of continuous improvement. Whenever accidents have occurred at nuclear facilities, increased regulation and cooperation have followed, either nationally or internationally.

For example, after the accident that befell the nuclear reactors in Fukushima, Japan in March 2011, there has been a renewed focus on the safety of nuclear power stations. Lessons learned from Japan are being shared among the world's nuclear operators. A thorough review of nuclear power in the UK , commissioned by the Government, has been published by Chief Nuclear Inspector Dr Mike Weightman, the UK's independent nuclear regulator.

Waste

One challenge of nuclear power is the waste it produces, some of which is highly radioactive. Another is the complex decommissioning required to remove all radioactive material from the site. However, both of these can be dealt with and the costs of waste management and decommissioning form part of the operating costs of the power station.

Costs

Nuclear power stations require major investment to construct, but their relatively low running costs over a long operational life help to make them one of the most cost-effective generating technologies. Uranium, the fuel used in nuclear reactors, is an abundant resource.

Information sources

Virtual nuclear power station

Nuclear power station

See in animated 3D how a nuclear power station generates electricity, including safety features, waste handling and care for the immediate environment.

How electricity is generated through nuclear power

Infographic illustrates how electricity is generated through nuclear power

The inner workings of a nuclear power station explained graphically.

Waste, safety and security

As would be expected, all nuclear power operators have to meet comprehensive regulations governing waste handling, safety and security.

Uranium, radiation and decommissioning

Raw uranium ore

Nuclear fuel is made from uranium ore. This concentrates the naturally occuring radiation and enables nuclear power stations to generate electricity. End-of-life decommissioning is a vital part of waste handling and safety in the nuclear energy industry.

Is it plentiful?

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Nuclear energy's biggest quantity of supply challenge is that nuclear power stations take so long to plan and build. But Government policies to speed up construction time without compromising safety and accountability, and more transparent communications between energy companies, the Government and the public help to alleviate these constraints.

Is it secure?

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All the uranium the UK uses for nuclear fuel is imported, but it can be sourced from a number of suppliers. The energy density of uranium is very high, which means it can easily be stockpiled to guard against short-term security of supply issues.

Is it predictable?

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UK nuclear power stations have an assumed availability at peak of 75%. Nuclear energy is one of the most reliable ways of generating electricity because nuclear power stations can deliver predictable and consistent levels for long periods of time.

Is it affordable?

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By 2020, the cost of generating electricity using nuclear power should be about 7.8p/kWh, making it the most cost-effective, large-scale energy source for generating low-carbon electricity. Once running, nuclear power stations have relatively low operating costs and the capital expenditure is spread over a long lifetime of high levels of output.

Is it clean?

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Nuclear power has a carbon footprint of 16gCO2e/kWh, most of which occurs at construction and decommissioning. But averaged out over long years of operation at close to zero-carbon levels puts nuclear power among the low-carbon energy sources.

EDF Energy's approach

Why EDF icon 3D

Nuclear energy is an important part of EDF Energy's mix.

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