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Just as many conventional thermal power stations generate electricity by harnessing the thermal energy released from burning fossil fuels, nuclear power plants convert the energy released from the nucleus of an atom, typically via nuclear fission.
When a relatively large fissile atomic nucleus (usually uranium-235 or plutonium-239) absorbs a neutron, a fission of the atom often results. Fission splits the atom into two or more smaller nuclei with kinetic energy (known as fission products) and also releases gamma radiation and free neutrons. A portion of these neutrons may later be absorbed by other fissile atoms and create more fissions, which release more neutrons, and so on.
This nuclear chain reaction can be controlled by using neutron poisons and neutron moderators to change the portion of neutrons that will go on to cause more fissions. Nuclear reactors generally have automatic and manual systems to shut the fission reaction down if unsafe conditions are detected.
A cooling system removes heat from the reactor core and transports it to another area of the plant, where the thermal energy can be harnessed to produce electricity or to do other useful work. Typically the hot coolant will be used as a heat source for a boiler, and the pressurized steam from that boiler will power one or more steam turbine driven electrical generators.
There are many different reactor designs, utilizing different fuels and coolants and incorporating different control schemes. Some of these designs have been engineered to meet a specific need. Reactors for nuclear submarines and large naval ships, for example, commonly use highly enriched uranium as a fuel. This fuel choice increases the reactor's power density and extends the usable life of the nuclear fuel load, but is more expensive and a greater risk to nuclear proliferation than some of the other nuclear fuels.
A number of new designs for nuclear power generation, collectively known as the Generation IV reactors, are the subject of active research and may be used for practical power generation in the future. Many of these new designs specifically attempt to make fission reactors cleaner, safer and/or less of a risk to the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Passively safe plants (such as the ESBWR) are available to be built and other designs that are believed to be nearly fool-proof are being pursued. Fusion reactors, which may be viable in the future, diminish or eliminate many of the risks associated with nuclear fission.