Nuclear energy—an outline
Produced in partnership with Herbert Smith Freehills
Nuclear energy—an outline

The following Environment guidance note Produced in partnership with Herbert Smith Freehills provides comprehensive and up to date legal information covering:

  • Nuclear energy—an outline
  • What is nuclear energy?
  • Nuclear fuel cycle
  • Risk associated with Nuclear Energy
  • Nuclear power generation worldwide
  • Nuclear power generation in the UK
  • The future of nuclear power generation in the UK

What is nuclear energy?

Nuclear energy is the energy derived from the core (the 'nucleus') of an atom.

Nuclear power plants split uranium atoms inside a nuclear reactor in a process called fission. The heat from fission is used to produce steam, which spins a turbine to generate electricity.

Nuclear energy can be produced through either:

  1. Fission (the splitting of a large atom into a smaller atom); or

  2. Fusion (the joining together of smaller atoms to form larger atoms)

While fission is currently used commercially to generate energy, nuclear fusion also produces energy that could in turn be used to generate electricity.

The technology is however not yet viable. See The future of nuclear power generation in the UK.

Various countries around the world are increasingly adopting nuclear energy in order to meet the growing demand for energy while reducing CO2 emissions linked with global warming.

Nuclear fuel cycle

The various industrial processes that lead to the production of electricity from nuclear reactions is called the nuclear fuel cycle. The cycle begins with the mining of uranium and ends with the disposal of nuclear wastes. The nuclear fuel cycle includes the 'front end', during which the fuel is prepared and the 'service period' which involves safe management of spent nuclear fuel including reprocessing and reuse and disposal.

Front end of the cycle

  1. Mining

    Uranium