Nuclear reactors use a type of nuclear reaction called nuclear fission. Another type of nuclear reaction – nuclear fusion – happens in the Sun and other stars.
Nuclear power reactors use a reaction called nuclear fission. Two isotopes in common use as nuclear fuels are uranium-235 and plutonium-239.
Fission is another word for splitting. The process of splitting a nucleus is called nuclear fission. Uranium or plutonium isotopes are normally used as the fuel in nuclear reactors, because their atoms have relatively large nuclei that are easy to split, especially when hit by neutrons.
When a uranium-235 or plutonium-239 nucleus is hit by a neutron, the following happens:
- the nucleus splits into two smaller nuclei, which are radioactive
- two or three more neutrons are released
- some energy is released
The additional neutrons released may also hit other uranium or plutonium nuclei and cause them to split. Even more neutrons are then released, which in turn can split more nuclei. This is called a chain reaction. The chain reaction in nuclear reactors is controlled to stop it going too fast.