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How do nuclear power plants work? - M. V. Ramana and Sajan Saini


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Our ability to mine great amounts of energy from uranium nuclei has led some to bill nuclear power as a plentiful, utopian source of electricity. But rather than dominate the global electricity market, nuclear power has declined from a high of 18% in 1996 to 11% today. What happened to the great promise of this technology? M.V. Ramana and Sajan Saini detail the challenges of nuclear power.

Additional Resources for you to Explore

This reading list provides a whistle-stop tour of basic issues associated with nuclear energy. 

Start with "The World Nuclear Industry Status Report 2016" by Mycle Schneider and Antony Froggatt. This review of worldwide developments in nuclear energy by Schneider and Froggatt, two energy analysts, aided by other specialists is published annually. It contains overviews of nuclear energy programs by country and by region, as well as summaries of global and regional trends in the energy industry. Check out the full report.

Nuclear Choices: A Citizen’s Guide to Nuclear Technology by Richard Wolfson (MIT Press, 1991) is another great source. Nuclear Choices is an accessible introduction to nuclear science and technology and their uses in nuclear energy and weapons. For those without much prior knowledge in the area, it is a good place to start. The book takes its purpose seriously—to introduce citizens to the information that can allow them to better understand the nuclear issues that make the news so that they can make up their own minds and participate in public and policy debates, rather than leaving it up to experts.

In Mortal Hands: A Cautionary History of the Nuclear Age by Stephanie Cooke (Bloomsbury, 2009). Cooke is a journalist who has covered the nuclear beat since the 1980s. She has written a compelling and engaging account of the nuclear age, covering both the production of electricity and weapons and the close connections between the two pursuits. Along the way, Cooke explains how nuclear power was sold as “too cheap to meter” and the problems with disposing of the radioactive waste produced.

Beyond Engineering: How Society Shapes Technology by Robert Pool. Pool, a popular science writer, wanted, to “produce a straightforward treatment of the commercial nuclear power industry—its history, its problems, and its potential for the future.” But the nice, simple story that he envisioned disappeared as he pursued it. Instead, he ended up with a rich and complex story of how society shapes technology. Pool draws on a range of disciplines, including history, economics, risk analysis, management science, and sociology, to make his case that “things,” even nuclear power plants, are more than what they seem.

"Nuclear Power: Economic, Safety, Health, and Environmental Issues of Near-Term Technologies" by M. V. Ramana (Annual Review of Environment and Resources, 2009). An academic review paper that covers nuclear power economics; safety (including the effects of safety culture and human agency); risks and consequences of major nuclear reactor accidents; environmental impacts of normal operation of a nuclear energy program; and the still unresolved problem of disposing of nuclear waste in a way that is environmentally benign and publicly acceptable.

One major question surrounding nuclear power today is whether newer Small Modular Reactors, or SMRs, can overcome all the problems with older reactor designs. A Radioactive Money Pit: The hidden risks of small-scale nuclear reactors and One size doesn’t fit all: Social priorities and technical conflicts for small modular reactors contain information about safety, waste, and proliferation concerns associated with SMRS. These articles require a purchase, but a free summary of the latter is available here: Small Modular Reactors and the Challenges of Nuclear Power. The Forgotten History of Small Nuclear Reactors is another free article with information on an earlier generation of small reactors.

M.V. Ramana, a physicist by training, is the Simons Chair in Disarmament, Global and Human Security with the Liu Institute for Global Issues at the University of British Columbia. He continues to be affiliated with the Program on Science and Global Security at Princeton University, where he worked till 2016. For more on Ramana, please see:

Sajan Saini is a former materials scientist and science writer. He directs the educational curriculum for AIM Photonics Academy at MIT and lectures at Princeton University. His writings have appeared in Coda Quarterly, MIT Ask an Engineer, and Harper's Magazine. For more on Sajan, please see:

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Meet The Creators

  • Educator Sajan Saini , M.V. Ramana
  • Director Will Mackenzie, Kat Gusarova
  • Animator Will Mackenzie, Kat Gusarova
  • Layout Artist Marlene Andersson
  • Producer The Animation Workshop
  • Associate Producer Jessica Ruby
  • Content Producer Gerta Xhelo
  • Editorial Producer Alex Rosenthal
  • Narrator Addison Anderson

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