Most of the current generation of nuclear reactors for commercial power generation use the heat released by nuclear fission to power a steam turbine similar to those used in conventional power plants. Most power reactors use uranium as fuel, although alternative fuels have been proposed and tested including plutonium and thorium, each with its own set of advantages and drawbacks. In order to contain the heat and radioactivity generated by the fission reaction in the core of a nuclear plant, large amounts of water must be circulated to cool the reactor, and an array of control rods keeps the reaction from overheating and causing a fuel meltdown. These basic safety and quality control measures are typically combined with multiple additional measures such as secondary containment structures to mitigate the risks associated with power plant failures.
Numerous other nuclear power plant designs exist either on paper or in the testing phases, such as breeder reactors, liquid-fluoride thorium reactors, and traveling wave reactors. However, as yet none of these are widely considered commercially mature technologies capable of replacing today’s light-water reactors, and new designs face many hurdles, ranging from the time between testing and constructing new pilot, demonstration, and full-scale facilities to the long lead times and extensive permitting process for any new nuclear plants.
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