With all of the media coverage going on right now about the disaster in Japan, perhaps a bit of explanation is in order. (Warning for those of you versed in the world of nuclear physics: this is going to be a relatively simple, watered-down, and incomplete idea of what goes on in a nuclear reactor…don’t get mad at me!) And let me get something out of the way right from the get-go: there’s not going to be a nuclear explosion in Fukushima, Japan. While atomic bombs and nuclear power plants both rely on nuclear reactions, they are extremely different when it comes to their potential to explode.
So here’s the short version. Essentially, nuclear reactors work in the exact same way as certain other engines we’ve been using for hundreds of years: by using steam. At the heart of a nuclear reactor lies a chamber that is submerged in large tank of water. Inside this chamber are a number of uranium “cores,” if you will. These are about the size of a Tootsie Roll, and they’re totally awesome.
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