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What is a nuclear power plant?

A nuclear power plant produces electricity from nuclear energy. There are 104 nuclear power plants in the United States. Nuclear energy is produced through the heat-generating "fission" process, in which neutrons split uranium atoms to create energy. This energy is used to make steam, which then powers generators to make electricity. Nuclear power plants use large amounts of water to carry heat, generate steam, and cool the nuclear reactor core. Plants are built next to a water source from which they can draw the water they need and return the water after use. The returned water is usually warm and may have some build up of heavy metals and salts. The water is not radioactive because it never comes in contact with radioactive materials. 

Unlike fuel-burning power plants, nuclear plants do not emit carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, or nitrogen oxides. But they use radioactive materials, including enriched uranium. Nuclear power plants produce spent nuclear fuel, which includes many highly radioactive byproducts of the fission process. Plants regularly have to remove and replace their spent uranium fuel. This waste remains radioactive for thousands of years, and must be adequately stored and isolated. They also produce low-level radioactive wastes, such as workers’ shoe covers and clothing, rags, mops, equipment, and reactor water residues. To protect their health, nuclear power plant workers are monitored for radiation exposure. 

An accident or failure at a nuclear power plant could result in dangerous levels of radiation that could affect the health and safety of people working at or living near the plant. Emergency planning defines two zones near a nuclear power plant. The 10-mile radius zone is where it is possible that people could be harmed by direct radiation exposure, which can cause serious illness or even death. The 50-mile radius zone is a broader area where radioactive materials could contaminate water supplies, food crops, and livestock.

Web Links from MedlinePlus (National Library of Medicine)
Hazardous Waste
Radiation Emergencies
Radiation Exposure

More Links
Electricity from Nuclear Energy (Environmental Protection Agency)
Emergency Preparedness and Response (US Nuclear Regulatory Commission)
Nuclear Power Plant Emergency (Federal Emergency Management Agency)
Nuclear Power Plants (Environmental Protection Agency)
Power Reactors (US Nuclear Regulatory Commission)
Radiation Emergencies (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

Last Updated: July 08, 2008

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