Nuclear power plants work in much the same way traditional power plants do, but with a different source of fuel. Instead of coal, oil, natural gas, wind, or water — they harness the heat energy created in a nuclear fission reaction to boil water, which creates steam, which then turns turbines to produce electricity.
The controversy over producing power this way comes from the damage that radioactive materials can do to people because of the risk of cancer to those who have been exposed to nuclear waste materials or fallout after an accident
In the past, accidents at nuclear power facilities including one at Three Mile Island in the United States and at Chernobyl in Russia (now in the Ukraine) released nuclear fallout into the atmosphere.
Right now, in the wake of the earthquake and tsunami in northeastern Japan, authorities are struggling to keep three fuel rods inside a nuclear reactor cool after the generators usually used to cool them were damaged in the tsunami. If the rods overheat and melt, nuclear materials will be released into the air.
Watch the video below to find out more about Chernobyl, then take the quiz on nuclear energy to learn more about how it works.
Reactors create heat that generates steam to create power. Learn more here.