Nuclear power plants are controlled by means of instrumentation and control systems (I&C). These systems are responsible for the coordination of the nuclear reactor, which is the heart of the power plant. The reactor is used to generate energy or produce useful radiation, and it does so by initiating and controlling a self-sustaining chain reaction. The heat created by this process is then used to lift steam, which passes through turbines and powers electrical generators.
The efficiency of nuclear power plants is expected to increase with more advanced reactor designs. Generation III reactors are estimated to be at least 17% more fuel efficient and have lower capital costs than their predecessors. Generation IV reactors promise even greater fuel efficiency gains and significant reductions in nuclear waste. Nuclear power plants also have a carbon footprint comparable to renewable energy sources such as solar parks and wind farms, and much lower than fossil fuels like natural gas and lignite.
This, combined with measures to mitigate global warming, such as a carbon tax or trading in carbon emissions, is making nuclear power increasingly favorable from an economic standpoint. In order to improve safety, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) requires nuclear plants to have response procedures in place for aircraft threats or the loss of large areas of the facility due to explosions or fires. Additionally, most nuclear reactors can operate for very long periods of time, often more than 60 years. When a facility has been completely dismantled, it is released from regulatory control and the station licensee is no longer responsible for its nuclear safety.
Most states have signed formal agreements with the NRC, which give states regulatory responsibility for small quantities of special nuclear material. Nuclear reactors in the United States can also have large concrete domes that cover the reactors, which are designed to contain accidental releases of radiation. Nuclear power plant operators must also have plans in place to deal with emergencies at nuclear power plants and practice them regularly. For more information about different types of reactors around the world, you can visit the Nuclear Power Reactors section from the Information Library.