Nation: How It Works

As plumbing goes, nuclear power plants exceed Rube Goldberg's wildest fantasies. The basic idea sounds simple—unstable heavy atoms, like those of uranium 235, break up (fission). Scattered in all directions are electrically neutral particles called neutrons as well as fission products such as shortlived radioactive xenon, krypton and iodine. The neutrons hit still other atoms like errant billiard balls in a chain reaction that produces heat. But obtaining useful energy from this process can be extremely complex. Pennsylvania's Three Mile Island nuclear plant has two pressurized water reactors. Such reactors are based on a design pioneered for nuclear submarines by the...

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