The Nuclear Power Station: A Tour From Command Center to Reactor

With nuclear power being talked about more these days as an alternative energy source over concerns for CO2 emissions, let’s familiarize ourselves a bit better with it.

A nuclear power plant is a power station which uses the heat from a nuclear reactor to generate steam which is harnessed through the use of a steam turbine to produce electricity. In 1948, the first nuclear power station was created in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, where it was modestly used to power a light bulb. A full power grid was capable of being powered by the mid-1950s, the first example of this occurring in Obninsk, Russia in June, 1954. Soon to follow were the nuclear power plants in Calder Hall, England and Shippingport in the United States, by the end of the 1950s.

A nuclear power plant if made up of several parts, dividing up the task to create energy cleanly and effectively. To get the process started, the pressurized water reactor achieves nuclear fission, heating up the coolant (usually water) in the process. Perfectly heated, the coolant is directed into the steam generator where the steam released is pressurized and sent to a multi-stage steam turbine. Feedwater pumps help to maintain the level of the water in the generator, increasing the amount of pressure before it is passed on. The steam turbine expands and condenses the steam, helping to remove the energy created by the fission reaction and make use of it by powering the electrical generator. The process begins again with the remainder of the water and vapor that remains, being sent through a condenser to a source of output such as a cooling tower or river.

nuclear fusion process diagram

At the heart of the operation is the nuclear reactor, in which the catalyst of the whole process occurs through the process of nuclear fission. Most often, looking into the center of the nuclear reactor will reveal uranium, used because of its nature as a fissile material.

The major downside to the process is that since nuclear fission creates radioactivity, the reactor core must be encased with shielding to absorb it and hinder It from escaping into the environment. To make certain that the radioactive water or steam that is produced does not leak into the earlier stages from the steam generator, the area is closely monitored by meters in the control room. Safety valves are typically installed at various points to help release a buildup of pressure which could rupture pipes or create an explosion in the reactor. Physically separated station service transformers can be set up to create two distinct sources of power which helps to secure power will always be available during an emergency. Most-if not all-nuclear power stations also are equipped to run with emergency power, should such a system of redundancy prove ineffective and a failure in offsite power occurs.

Lastly, but perhaps most importantly, comes the control room, from which the system operators oversee and manage the healthy functioning of the entire station and each one of its parts through an array of sensors and controls built into the furniture. The operator can surmise if problems such as equipment failure may be on the horizon by logging all of the data collected from the monitors and evaluating it for any irregularities. Another crucial job of the operator is to observe and command the personnel onsite, which is most important when hazardous repairs are being undertaken.