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U.S. Department of Energy


6th, 7th, 8th


Science, Chemistry, Physics

Resource Type

  • Article

Regional Focus

Global, North America, United States

How Does a Nuclear Reactor Work?

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  • This resource explains the basic operations of a nuclear reactor. 
  • Students will learn how nuclear reactors house nuclear fission, how nuclear fission occurs, what happens in a reactor to create electricity, and the types of nuclear reactors that are operating in the United States.
Teaching Tips


  • This resource is an excellent introduction to how a nuclear reactor produces energy. 
  • Visuals are included for both types of light-water reactors, which will allow for increased understanding and for students to compare and contrast how each works. 

Additional Prerequisites

  • Fission and the types of reactors are well covered here, but students should have some prior knowledge on nuclear power
  • The article does not mention the large amount of concrete used to build nuclear reactors, the high costs of building them, or the environmental justice issues or risks associated with storing nuclear waste, nuclear proliferation, or nuclear meltdowns.


  • Students could work individually or in groups to "dive deeper" into this topic using the following guiding questions and this resource about solutions to climate change:
    • How much of the power in their region/country/continent is nuclear? Why isn't there more nuclear power being generated? What are the biggest considerations when moving to nuclear power? How could nuclear power help curb climate change? 
  • To check for understanding, you could pose these questions after students have read this resource:
    • What is the main job of the reactor?
    • Fission creates heat. What does this heat do to create power?
    • What role does water play in a nuclear reactor?  Does this water use negatively affect aquatic ecosystems or water security?
    • What is the main difference between a Pressurized Water Reactor and a Boiling Water Reactor?
  • Additional resources on this topic include this podcast about safe nuclear power, this video about how fission creates power, this video about how uranium becomes nuclear fuel, and this map showing where nuclear power is generated worldwide
Scientist Notes
The resource explains fission and the two main processes involved nuclear energy generation. This is recommended for teaching.
  • Science and Engineering
    • PS1: Matter and Its Interactions
      • MS-PS1-4 Develop a model that predicts and describes changes in particle motion, temperature, and state of a pure substance when thermal energy is added or removed.
    • PS3: Energy
      • MS-PS3-5 Construct, use, and present arguments to support the claim that when the kinetic energy of an object changes, energy is transferred to or from the object.
  • English Language Arts
    • Reading (K-12)
      • R.6-8.12 Read with sufficient accuracy and fluency to support comprehension.
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