Japan Earthquake and Tsunami Image Gallery
Japan Earthquake and Tsunami Image Gallery

Satellite view of the Fukushima-Daichii nuclear power plant on March 16, 2011, after an 8.9 magnitude earthquake and tsunami set in motion a chain of disastrous events at the facility. See more pictures of the aftermath of Japan's earthquake and Tsunami.

Photo by DigitalGlobe via Getty Images

The nuclear power plant stands on the border between humanity's greatest hopes and its deepest fears for the future.

On one hand, atomic energy offers a clean energy alternative that frees us from the shackles of fossil fuel dependence. On the other, it summons images of disaster: quake-ruptured Japanese power plants belching radioactive steam, the dead zone surrounding Chernobyl's concrete sarcophagus.

But what happens inside a nuclear power plant to bring such marvel and misery into being? Imagine following a volt of electricity back through the wall socket, all the way through miles of power lines to the nuclear reactor that generated it. You'd encounter the generator that produces the spark and the turbine that turns it. Next, you'd find the jet of steam that turns the turbine and finally the radioactive uranium bundle that heats water into steam. Welcome to the nuclear reactor core.

The water in the reactor also serves as a coolant for the radioactive material, preventing it from overheating and melting down. In March 2011, viewers around the world became well acquainted with this reality as Japanese citizens fled by the tens of thousands from the area surrounding the Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear facility after the most powerful earthquake on record and the ensuing tsunami inflicted serious damage on the plant and several of its reactor units. Among other events, water drained from the reactor core, which in turn made it impossible to control core temperatures. This resulted in overheating and a partial nuclear meltdown [source: NPR].

As of March 1, 2011, there were 443 operating nuclear power reactors spread across the planet in 47 different countries [source: WNA]. In 2009 alone, atomic energy accounted for 14 percent of the world's electrical production. Break that down to the individual country and the percentage skyrockets as high as 76.2 percent for Lithuania and 75.2 for France [source: NEI]. In the United States, 104 nuclear power plants supply 20 percent of the electricity overall, with some states benefiting more than others.

In this article, we'll look at just how a nuclear reactor functions inside a power plant, as well as the atomic reaction that releases all that crucial heat.