When this is done, a tremendous amount of energy is released. The energy is both heat and light energy. This energy, when let out slowly, can be harnessed to generate electricity. When it is let out all at once, it makes a tremendous explosion in an atomic bomb. The word fission means to split apart.
A nuclear power plant (like Diablo Canyon Nuclear Plant shown on the right) uses uranium as a "fuel." Uranium is an element that is dug out of the ground many places around the world. It is processed into tiny pellets that are loaded into very long rods that are put into the power plant's reactor.
Inside the reactor of an atomic power plant, uranium atoms are split apart in a controlled chain reaction.
In a chain reaction, particles released by the splitting of the atom go off and strike other uranium atoms splitting those. Those particles given off split still other atoms in a chain reaction. In nuclear power plants, control rods are used to keep the splitting regulated so it doesn't go too fast.
If the reaction is not controlled, you could have an atomic bomb. But in atomic bombs, almost pure pieces of the element Uranium-235 or Plutonium, of a precise mass and shape, must be brought together and held together, with great force. These conditions are not present in a nuclear reactor.
The reaction also creates radioactive material. This material could hurt people if released, so it is kept in a solid form. The very strong concrete dome in the picture is designed to keep this material inside if an accident happens.
This chain reaction gives off heat energy. This heat energy is used to boil water in the core of the reactor. So, instead of burning a fuel, nuclear power plants use the chain reaction of atoms splitting to change the energy of atoms into heat energy.
This water from around the nuclear core is sent to another section of the power plant.